Refugees need protection

People wave white cloths next to the refugee tents erected near the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
People wave white cloths next to the refugee tents erected near the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
In his opinion piece (“Return to Eritrea is long overdue,” October 15), Yonatan Jacubowicz deems Eritrea, a country whose regime has been accused of crimes against humanity, safe enough.
Maybe not safe enough by “unrealistic” Western standards, but safe enough for around 25,000 Eritrean asylum-seekers currently seeking protection in israel. If they wanted to, Jacubowicz argues, they could just pack up and go home.
Jacubowicz takes pride in promoting the Deposit Law, an amendment that came into force in May 2017 that is meant to “encourage” people to leave. It requires Israeli employers to deduct 20% of asylum-seekers’ wages and deposit the money into a designated fund, to be returned to the asylum-seeker only upon leaving Israel.
In other words, the sole purpose of the Deposit Law is to create distress among asylum-seekers – to make them go hungry, to weaken them and their families, and to push them to the brink of despair until they “choose” to leave Israel.
Asylum-seekers are one of the most marginalized populations in Israel, they are excluded from public health and social services and are not entitled to welfare. The price of the Deposit Law is paid predominantly by children, families and other vulnerable individuals.
In ASSAF-Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum-seekers, we meet with over 1,000 Asylum-seekers a year. In the year following the implementation of the Deposit Law, we saw a 33% rise in people coming to us seeking food aid.
They tell us that they and their children eat fewer meals per day. Some speak of hunger. Many struggle to pay rent, and apartments are becoming overcrowded, which means women – including victims of torture and sexual violence – have less personal safe space, as do children. Anxiety is tearing through the community, and we have seen an 86% rise in families terrified of being thrown out to the street. The anxiety and stress are taking their toll, and we have seen 209% rise in people suffering from mental health issues. To compensate for losing a fifth of their salary, people work countless hours to make ends meet, and many are forced to accept exploitative terms and work without a pay slip, which means they lose their health insurance.
HOWEVER, THE Deposit Law is most devastating for children. Children of asylum-seekers are getting less nutrition and some arrive to school hungry. Parents who now cannot afford regular private kindergartens put their children back in unsupervised ones (often referred to as “babysitters” or “children warehouses”), which cost less.
Conditions with the babysitters are poor and often dangerous – with six reported deaths in recent years. Many families also report that they have stopped, or are thinking of stopping, the payment toward their children’s health insurance (unlike Israeli children, if the asylum-seekers don’t pay, their children are left with no health insurance).
In response to a petition by several human rights organizations, ASSAF included, to the High Court of Justice, the state announced that it would do what it had initially refused to do in the legislative process, and create guidelines for exempting “humanitarian cases” from the Deposit Law.
The regulations that passed on June 27 reduced the percentage of the deposit from 20% to 6% for some populations (women, men older than 60, trafficking victims, minors and those who are able to prove an extreme medical condition).
However, the reduction ignores the main providers in the community: men – those with families and those who support others in the community. This is the reality under the surface of the Deposit Law. All this so Eritrean asy lum-seekers can “choose” to return to the arms of one the most notorious regimes in the world. And do they just pack up their things and go back? No, they don’t.
According to figures provided by Israeli authorities, 1,019 asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan left Israel between January and May 2018, compared to 1,703 in the same period in 2017 – a 40% decrease. Why? Because, here again, we need to look under the surface. Despite the diplomatic changes, a former minister was jailed in Eritrea for speaking up and forced labor continues to masquerade as national service.
Eritreans are patriotic people and they love their country. But for now, it seems, they prefer to go hungry in Israel than to return home. They will go back when it is safe for them. The shame will probably linger with Israelis forever. The writer is CEO of ASSAF-Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Israel.