New forms for African migrants make working illegal

Exclusive: If law is to be implemented, gov't will have enormous humanitarian crisis, public relations disaster, warns UN refugee official.

November 19, 2010 06:10
4 minute read.
AN AFRICAN worker in Tel Aviv.

African worker 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Will African migrants no longer be allowed to work in Israel?

The Jerusalem Post learned on Thursday that all African migrants who renewed their visas this week received new versions of the form stating clearly that the permit does not allow them to work.

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Though formally the migrants, who some consider to be refugees and others illegal infiltrators, are indeed forbidden to work, the authorities have been reluctant to enforce the law and have not prosecuted employers who hired them. In the past, the forms reflected that policy, making no mention of their eligibility to work.

“If the African refugees are not allowed to work, the government will have an enormous humanitarian crisis on its hands and a public relations disaster,” said William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel.

“We have made it clear to the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice, that if the African refugees are not allowed to work, we will consider the state responsible for their well-being. They are refugees whether the government calls them that or not. If the government starts enforcing the law and employers stop hiring the refugees, thousands of them will be in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv within days,” Tall said.

With more and more Africans getting past the border from Egypt all the time, current estimates are that 1,200 people cross over every month, and the government is desperate to stop the flow. Some believe that the latest initiative is meant to discourage more people for coming.

“The government is convinced that these people are economic migrants and not asylum-seekers fleeing from war and political persecution. They believe that if they won’t allow the refugees to work, it will stop people from coming. What they don’t understand is that by not allowing them to work, they are sentencing those who are here to poverty and starvation. These people cannot be expelled from the country. They have nowhere to go,” said Sigal Rozen, policy director for the Migrant Workers Hotline.

“If the law starts getting enforced and employers stop hiring the refugees, what does the government expect them to do?”

The main employer of the African migrant population is the hotel industry in Eilat and at the Dead Sea, whose representatives say that enforcement of the law will lead to mass firings, which in turn will create irrecoverable damage to the hotels and lead the African migrants to lives of poverty and crime.

“Ultimately, this can spell very bad news for the hotel industry in the South. There are currently roughly 1,500 African migrants working in hotels here and from our perspective they are irreplaceable,” said Shabtai Shai director of the Eilat Hotel Association.

“We started hiring the African refugees, or migrants, or infiltrators, whatever you want to call them, in 2007, when they started arriving in numbers. From our perspective we were lucky to have them, as we were facing a severe shortage of workers and they filled up jobs that others simply won’t do. For us it is impossible to find Israelis who are willing to do the jobs they do, things like washing dishes, changing sheets and scrubbing toilets, definitely not in Eilat,” he said.

Shai said that it was too early to tell what the impact of the new move would be.

“For one thing we have yet to receive any formal notice from the Ministry of Interior that we are no longer allowed to hire them. All we know is that people are coming to the human resources departments with the restriction printed in black and white on the visa. Hoteliers don’t want to break the law, but we don’t even know if there has been a change in policy. Right now it’s mainly a psychological problem.”

Shai also questioned the legal standing of the new restriction on the form.

“I’m not even sure whether it’s legal for the Ministry of Interior to issue the visa with a work restriction. I do know that the issue of employing African migrants has been petitioned in the court and that a judge ruled that they were permitted to work. There is also a ruling that says they have to give 30 days warning before they begin enforcing the prohibition. I think that the Ministry of Interior is trying to circumvent the ruling, intimidating employers, but not yet directly enforcing the law.”

When asked whether the new form represented a change of policy, Population, Immigration and Borders spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said there was no policy change and that the migrants were, as they always were, forbidden to work.

“We changed the terminology of the visa form because there were mix ups and uncertainty among employers,” she said.

“The fact that the law wasn’t enforced until now doesn’t change its legality. Based on the cabinet’s decision, we will begin enforcement against employers starting on January 1,” Hadad said.

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