Despite war, young Malawians turn to Israel for work amid economic crisis at home

Young adults apply for jobs on Israeli farms, many of which desperately need workers following October 7 Hamas attack

Women sell vegetables in a local market in Kaliyeka in Lilongwe, Malawi on February 22, 2023. (Fredrik Lerneryd/AFP)
Women sell vegetables in a local market in Kaliyeka in Lilongwe, Malawi on February 22, 2023. (Fredrik Lerneryd/AFP)

LILONGWE, Malawi (AFP) —  Hundreds of people queued outside a hotel in the Malawi capital this week for a chance to work in Israel, wary of the war but willing to face the dangers to escape their own country’s woes.

With Malawi’s economy in deep trouble, thousands are ready to take on jobs on Israeli farms and orchards left deserted amid Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza.

Asian foreign workers have fled, while Gazan Palestinians have been barred since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, in which the 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took some 240 hostages, including dozens of foreign workers.

“Life is a game of chances,” said Blessings Kanyimbo, as he stood in line on Thursday, telling how his college education had failed to get him a job.

“People do bet on games, on something that they are not sure of,” he added. “At times it’s good to take a risk but as far as going to Israel is concerned, I don’t think there is any harm.”

A 24-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said that trying her luck in Israel was “better than just staying home and doing nothing.”

Economic conflict

The woman sheltered with others from the scorching sun under trees in the hotel garden, holding an envelope with her job application.

Malawi has been gripped by an economic crisis that has seen massive government spending cuts.

The woman said she had been jobless for three years since graduating.

“I just pray that all of us come back home safely, but this is a risk that I have to take,” she said.

More than 220 Malawians flew to Israel on Saturday as part of a government labor export program aimed at finding jobs for young people and generating desperately needed foreign exchange.

Another 200 took off late on Wednesday.

Authorities say up to 5,000 Malawians could go to Israel over the next few months.

Agriculture students from Malawi in East Africa, picking cherries at Tel Fares near the Syrian border, Golan Heights on May 25, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

“Life in Malawi is very hard and it keeps getting harder every single day,” said Graciam Banda, 30, who was also waiting in the queue.

The shopkeeper said he makes about 100,000 Kwacha ($60) a month to house and feed his family.

Israel’s ambassador Michael Lotem said the foreign laborers would earn about $1,500 a month.

Reports have said that Israel may need more than 30,000 foreign workers for its struggling farms.

But not everyone in Malawi supports the labor export program.

Opposition leader Kondwani Nankhumwa described the labor deal as “an evil transaction” because of the threat from the war that has left thousands dead.

Rights groups have demanded more details of the government’s deal with Israel so that Malawians are better informed of the risks.

But the government has rebuffed criticism.

“Anything can happen anywhere, but we are assured that the same level of safety that is being accorded to Israeli citizens will be accorded to Malawian citizens,” Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu told AFP.

“We have our young people working in many countries”, including Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, he added.

Malawian recruits will work in safe areas in Israel, said Kunkuyu.

The Israeli ambassador told The Nation newspaper the deal was a “win-win” for the two countries.

Malawians will earn good money and knowledge, while Israel will partly fill its labor gap.

On top of the foreign exodus, some 350,000 Israelis have been called up into the military.

“They are not going to Gaza. They will work in Israel,” Lotem said of the Malawian workers. “We will take care of them as much as we are taking care of Israelis.”

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