Ethiopian groups angry over gov't failure to prioritize 5-year absorption plan

Ethiopian groups angry o

ethopians absorption center 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ethopians absorption center 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the government prepares to speed up aliya from Ethiopia in the coming months, veteran immigrants here say that the failure to prioritize a five-year plan - drafted more than two years ago and aimed at improving the absorption in society of Ethiopian Israelis - could have fatal consequences for the 110,000-strong community, The Jerusalem Post heard on Monday. "The government has failed to make this plan a priority like it promised," said Avi Masfin, deputy director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. The association has been instrumental in lobbying for the far-reaching plan, which was meant to improve the absorption process in general and particularly focus on education, housing, employment and social welfare for Ethiopian immigrants. Masfin said the association was among several Ethiopian NGOs that filed a petition to the High Court of Justice last year to push the government into funding the plan in addition to existing programs. The groups' petition is expected to be heard in court next week. "The government decided that instead of providing the plan with a separate budget, all its financing should come from existing funds within each ministry," explained Masfin. "We are already seeing that this is not working. Ministries are afraid to take budgets from existing programs if they are not sure that the new plan will work." According to data from the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, two-thirds of all Ethiopian immigrant families are in need of assistance from the social welfare services and in some towns, close to 90 percent of Ethiopian immigrants require such care. More than 75% of Ethiopian families live below the poverty line. In a hearing of the Knesset's Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee earlier this month, Hanoch Zamir, deputy director-general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, admitted that the plan was not to receive a separate budget but would have to be implemented based on existing budgets from the five ministries involved - Immigrant Absorption; Education; Welfare and Social Services; Trade, Industry and Labor; and Construction and Housing. At the hearing, Zamir, who was not available for further comment on Monday, presented a report from the ministry on the failure of the plan to be properly implemented due to lack of funds. He expressed deep frustration over the government's failure to prioritize the plan, which would ultimately improve the lives of thousands of families. Committee chairwoman MK Lia Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu) quipped: "We all agree that this is an excellent plan, the only thing that is missing is funding." Initiated in November 2006, the plan came following a series of demonstrations by members of the Ethiopian community frustrated over difficult economic and social conditions that have propelled the immigrant population to become one of the most poverty-stricken in the country. For the duration of 2007, government officials and members of the community met under the auspices of a special interministerial committee to discuss ways to combine forces and ease the burdens faced by new and veteran immigrants. Although the plan was approved by the cabinet at the start of 2008, the Finance Ministry refused to allocate a budget for the full five years, promising instead NIS 82.5 million for the first year and requesting that each ministry involved negotiate additional funds in the follow-up years. However, in May 2009, the plan's budget was slashed by some 40%, with the Treasury refusing to allocate additional funds to each ministry for its individual projects with the Ethiopian community. In addition, each ministry was expected to contribute much less than originally projected. In his presentation in the Knesset this month, Zamir said that the plan, which is currently active in only five cities, had failed to reach all the immigrants who need assistance. The Association for Ethiopian Jews's Masfin lamented: "The way it stands now, this plan barely exists in the field."