Coronavirus: How are asylum seekers and foreign workers in Israel coping?

Asylum seekers are going through difficulties in terms of economic stability, access to health insurance and general fear related to the coronavirus outbreak.

An African migrant sits near the Old Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, Israel February 3, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An African migrant sits near the Old Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, Israel February 3, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
The coronavirus crisis in Israel is proving especially challenging for asylum seekers and foreign workers, as explained to The Jerusalem Post by Sigal Rozen, public policy director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a leading organization supporting refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking.
Asylum seekers, among the most vulnerable groups in the country, are going through significant difficulties in terms of economic stability, access to health insurance and general fear related to the outbreak which they find themselves facing in poor living conditions and often without being able to proper understand the regulations and the scope of the emergency.
“There are about 30,000 asylum seekers in Israel, 22,000 of whom from Eritrea, 6,000 Sudanese and 2,000 from other countries,” Rozen said. “About 15,000 have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus crisis, at least 10,000 from the restaurant industry.”
The representative of the NGO explained that for asylum seekers being laid off also means that they are stripped of health insurance, which employers are obligated to provide them according to the law but that ceases after they are not working anymore.
“However, it is important to say that the Health Ministry has instructed the hospitals to treat those who arrive presenting coronavirus symptoms even if they don’t have health insurance, including existing pre-existing conditions,” she emphasized. So far, she said that their organization is not aware of anyone getting infected, but two asylum seekers were in contact with patients and entered quarantine. “Yet, they are not first in line for tests in general,” she added.
In March, about 840,000 people in Israel applied for unemployment benefits. However, asylum seekers are not entitled to receive them and their economic situation already precarious is exposed to further complications.
“Currently, most of the phone calls we are receiving are from people who lost their jobs and are panicking,” Rozen said. “It is important to remember that not only the vast majority of asylum seekers work in low-paying jobs, but also that the government retains 36% of their net salary in a fund that they can access only if they move out of the country and in addition to this their employers have to pay an additional tax of 20%. It is therefore almost impossible for asylum seekers to save for emergency circumstances like this one.”
In order to help, Hotline is working on two fronts, she highlighted, to persuade the government to use the funds accumulated from the 36% of the wages to establish some form of allowance, and connect those who lost their jobs with supermarkets and other companies that need to expand their staff.
Another consequence of the dire economic situation of the group is that they are forced to leave in overcrowded conditions, with one family or many singles crammed into one room, which exposes them to a higher risk of getting infected. Most of them are concentrated in south Tel Aviv.
Another area where Hotline is active is to advocate for the release of those in administrative detention.
“We consider their detention unlawful also under normal circumstances, but in addition they are kept in small cells with six or eight people per room, which is in contrast with the Health Ministry regulations,” Rozen pointed out.
In normal times, Hotline primarily offers support for issues regarding legal statuses, visas and expulsions, assisting also the foreign workers.
“There are about 100,000 migrant workers currently in Israel, mostly from the Philippines, Thailand and India. The authorities encourage them to come to work in agriculture or to take care of our elderly people,” she explained.
For foreign workers, the current challenges are mostly not of an economic or bureaucratic nature, since the majority of them is employed in sectors that still need to function and the government announced that expiring visa can be automatically extended, Rozen pointed out.
“However, it is definitely a difficult time for those who are working with the elderly population: being a caretaker is not easy in general and right now many of the people they assist are very scared and don’t allow them to leave the house,” she explained.
A challenge for those who do not speak Hebrew or other languages commonly-used in Israel is also to understand the situation and the regulations issues by the authorities.
“I see a lot of fear and panic because people are not sure of what is going on and sometimes think that the emergency is even worse than what is actually happening,” Rozen pointed out, highlighting that is true especially for asylum seekers.
“The Health Ministry and the Tel Aviv Municipality have made an effort to translate the regulations in the languages most common among them, which is good, but some mistakes were made and the directive sometimes sounded harsher than they are: for example, it was not explained that people are allowed to leave the house to go to work and many were afraid to do so,” she concluded. “Where they are from, it is very dangerous to disobey to the orders of the authorities.”