NGO slams policy putting Ethiopian olim in specific areas

Government creating ‘new ghettos’ by restricting where immigrants can buy homes with public aid, claims Ethiopian advocacy group.

By
April 21, 2011 01:29
New Ethiopian immigrants at seder

New Ethiopian immigrants at seder 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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An Ethiopian immigrants’ rights group has been working to change an Immigrant Absorption Ministry policy that it claims forces new olim to purchase property in limited neighborhoods – some in very poor or troubled areas – to receive a government housing grant and mortgage package.

However, the ministry said at a Knesset hearing last month that the policy is aimed at avoiding a trend of “ghettoizing” the new immigrants.

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Still, Ziva Mekonen-Dagu, executive director of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday that such a policy is not only “patronizing” but severely infringes on human rights, and is “creating new ghettos” in other areas.

“The Immigrant Absorption Ministry thinks it can tell Ethiopian immigrants what to do, and no one will complain or respond – but it is not right for a person to tell another person where they can or cannot buy a house,” she said.

Mekonen-Dagu added that during a meeting last week with representatives of the Immigrant Absorption and Housing and Construction ministries, “we told them that these kinds of policies are simply not acceptable.”

She took over as executive director of the grass-roots NGO last September, and said she sees this issue as her first big battle for improving the status of Ethiopian immigrants.

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Mekonen-Dagu said many of the streets offered to the immigrants are in low socio-economic neighborhoods, such as the haredi stronghold Mea She’arim in Jerusalem; or in crime-ridden neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv. Some are even in mixed Jewish- Arab neighborhoods, such as Ajami in Jaffa, or Beit Hanina in east Jerusalem, she said.

“Those we spoke to are not willing to move to Mea She’arim, or into Muslim neighborhoods,” Mekonen-Dagu said. “It’s not that they are racist – and I know there are some Israelis who believe in the principles of co-existence – but that is their choice. For these immigrants they were given no choice.”

Mekonen-Dagu added that during a recent visit to Ethiopian families now living in Jaffa, she heard how the immigrants – who must undergo an Orthodox conversion to Judaism as part of the immigration process – are bitterly disappointed at being forced to send their children to mixed Jewish-Christian-Muslim kindergartens and schools.

“The teacher told them that it is an Israeli-style kindergarten, but the [olim] do not want to be celebrating with Santa Claus during Hanukka,” she explained.

“It is simply not fair to say that one street or city is closed to new immigrants ‘because it will create a ghetto’ – but then force the people to buy in areas or streets where there are already social problems and serious crime.”

During a meeting last month of the Knesset’s Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, Haviv Katsav, deputy director for housing in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, explained that the policy was designed to prevent immigrants from moving into neighborhoods where Ethiopians constitute 9 percent of the overall population – including Rehovot, Netanya and Kiryat Malachi.

Katsav said the ministry wants to direct Ethiopian olim to areas where they presently constitute less than 5% of total residents.

He insisted that the core of the problem was more the size of the government grant/mortgage allocation, which “does not allow them to buy in areas that are not already in distress.”

Under current government guidelines, new immigrants from Ethiopia are entitled to a combination grant and mortgage amounting to NIS 237,000 for a young couple; and roughly NIS 500,000 for a family of up to six people.

The lower amount, which Mekonen-Dago said is “not even enough to buy a one-room apartment in most decent neighborhoods in this country,” has been greatly debated and criticized because it forces Ethiopian immigrants to buy in only poor areas.

In addition, a recent study by the Knesset Research and Information Department found that the number of Ethiopian immigrants utilizing the government grant/mortgage has dropped significantly in the last year, as housing prices in Israel continue to skyrocket.

Last year only 503 families managed to buy new apartments, compared to 750 the previous year. This year the numbers have fallen even more drastically.

On Wednesday, MK Danny Danon (Likud), chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, told the Post that his committee was working with the Treasury to increase the grant/mortgage allocation to NIS 700,000 maximum per family.

He also said he had given the Immigrant Absorption Ministry a grace period to create clearer guidelines for property purchases.

“No one should be telling them where to buy an apartment, but I do understand the policy of preventing them from buying in certain neighborhoods or streets where there are already large groups of new immigrants,” Danon said.

A spokesman for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry said an inter-ministerial committee – with representatives from the Housing and Construction Ministry – has already been established to look into the matter.

“Under our current policy, which is based on a government decision, Ethiopian immigrants are entitled to a grant if they purchase property in areas with a strong socio-economic status, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics,” said the spokesman. “This is also based on how well the cities can absorb the new immigrants, and on the percentage of Ethiopian immigrants already living there.”

Even though Mekonen-Dagu is now working closely with ministry officials to redraft new housing regulations, she added Wednesday that the policy was symptomatic of the state’s overall approach to the Falash Mura immigration.

Last November, the government approved measures to continue with the organized immigration of some 8,000 Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity more than 150 years ago. Subsequently, several large international Jewish organizations came forward to help fund what is now being labeled as “the final phase” of aliya from Ethiopia.

However, Mekonen-Dagu contends, “this is really cosmetic. If the government has made a decision to bring in more immigrants, then it needs to take responsibility for helping those that are already here.”

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