'Like you, we got through Sinai. I hope we can endure this'

To survive pandemic, migrants ask government to return money taken from them

With majority in their communities now unemployed and without government benefits, asylum seekers say law withholding 20% of their salaries will put families on the streets

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

The Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
The Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

For several years, Bluts Iyassu participated in periodic protests against a law that required companies employing asylum seekers to place part of their wages into a special fund they could not access.

Asylum seekers, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan, argued that the law would make it impossible for them to sustain such a hit to their already low wages and organized rallies to decry the measure.

In recent weeks, though, those demonstrations have ceased. Not because the migrants have overcome the hardship, but because of recent government guidelines aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak that require social distancing.

If anything, in fact, the crisis surrounding the pandemic has made their situation even more dire, with the stagnating economy hitting them more acutely than most other groups, leaving many with no job, no savings or safety net, and in danger of being left out on the street. The money from the garnished wages, they say, may be their only lifeline.

“Protests had been our only method to fight back against the injustice. Now, when the effects of this law are being felt the most, we cannot even do that,” said Bluts Iyassu, a 38-year-old who fled Eritrea in 2010 and has been living in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve She’anan ever since.

There are roughly 36,000 asylum seekers currently living in Israel, according to data released by the Population and Immigration Authority in March 2018.

In May 2017, hoping to encourage the African migrants to leave, the Knesset passed the Deposit Law, requiring companies that employ asylum seekers to deduct 20 percent of their paychecks and place it into a special fund that only becomes available to them if they leave the country.

Volunteers with the African Refugee Development Center prepare to deliver food packages to African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, April 3, 2020. (Courtesy ARDC)

Among his friends, Iyassu said he is one of the “lucky ones” because he has been able to keep working. But as the coronavirus restrictions have intensified, his hours at a local supermarket have been cut and he expressed concern he would no longer be able to make it to his second job at a different grocery in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana due to the lack of public transportation.

Iyassu relayed that many of his friends who were working in the restaurant and maintenance industries have lost their jobs, and because of their status in Israel, they cannot even get loans from the bank.

Police enforcing government coronavirus guidelines in south Tel Aviv on April 2, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)

“They need the money that they earned. If they don’t receive it, and this continues for another month or two, it’s going to be a catastrophe for asylum seekers. You’ll start seeing people losing their homes and on the streets,” he warned. “Then, how will they be able to keep the [quarantine] guidelines?”

The purpose of the Deposit Law is to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country by making their day-to-day life more difficult, according to the law’s sponsors and the Interior Ministry. “After the failure to expel infiltrators, this law is the only legal tool we have today to encourage infiltrators to leave voluntarily,” MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) said, in a hearing about the Deposit Law on May 2018 that also highlighted lax enforcement and widespread abuse.

In addition to the 20%, employers are responsible for depositing an additional 16% of the salary to the fund, the same way employers pay a similar amount into pension plans for Israeli workers. Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank oversees the deposit accounts, but is not obligated to send reports or summaries about the accounts to the individuals, and the accounts are not covered by the Law of Oversight Over Financial Services in Israel.

African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017,against the ‘Deposit Law,’ which requires them to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund which they can only take back after they leave the country. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

While the Interior Ministry has argued that the savings provide “a proper starting point for the beginning of the migrants’ new lives outside of Israel” when they are able to leave, asylum seekers and their supporters who spoke to The Times of Israel said that they do not have the luxury to be worrying about long-term savings when they aren’t sure they can afford next month’s rent.

In an apparent recognition of asylum seekers’ plight, the Interior Ministry published a legislative proposal earlier this month that would allow migrants to withdraw up to NIS 2,700 a month from their deposit funds.

However, the law has since been stalled and it is unclear when or if lawmakers will vote on the measure.

Regardless, Tali Ehrenthal, who heads the ASSAF Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, said the sum discussed would not be sufficient enough to even cover rent for many migrant families.

Tali Ehrenthal, CEO of ASSAF. (Courtesy Asaf)

ASSAF estimates that between 50 and 75% of asylum seekers have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, given that many of them work in the restaurant and hotel fields.

“But unlike with Israeli citizens, they have no unemployment benefits, social security or a communal support system to rely on,” she said. “They’re left with nothing.”

ASSAF has expanded its programs to assist the asylum seeker community, handing out vouchers and hundreds of food packages, diapers and baby formula for families in need.

The aid group was supposed to shut down for the entire Passover holiday, but it decided to keep a unit running due to the increase in requests.

Mistrust of authorities

“We’ve also noticed a decline in the community’s overall mental health,” Ehrenthal said. “Our social workers have been receiving more clients than ever.”

The ASSAF CEO said that the vast majority of asylum seekers have been abiding by the coronavirus movement restrictions “to an extreme.”

South Tel Aviv residents wait for food handouts on April 2, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)

“Even though they’re allowed to leave their homes with their children within 100 meters, a lot of them have been staying inside for over three weeks,” she said.

“They’re extremely stressed because the government has done little to translate the guidelines in their languages.”

While some health analysts had feared that south Tel Aviv — where most of the asylum seekers live — would follow Bnei Brak in becoming a hotspot for the virus, given its crowded and often decrepit living conditions, that hasn’t appeared to be the case thus far.

On Monday, Magen David Adom emergency services opened up a testing site catering to the migrant community in the city’s old central bus station. Of the roughly 100 tests that have been carried out, two have come back positive for the coronavirus, but the pair of cases has only been experiencing mild symptoms, the emergency services said.

Medical workers wearing full protective clothing at a site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in south Tel Aviv on April 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ehrenthal praised the opening of the site but said more needed to be done to publicize its existence.

“We’re trying to explain to clients that they’re not going to be arrested if they go there and that when they give their information, it won’t be used against them,” she said.

“There’s a lot of mistrust of the government due to the years of neglect.”

In this together

“I know it’s hard for everyone here, and I’m not trying to diminish what the rest of the country is going through, but it’s particularly difficult for us,” said Eden Tesfamariam.

Like Iyassu, the 34-year-old fled Eritrea to Israel in 2010 and now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in south Tel Aviv with her three children.

“We’re not receiving money from Bituach Leumi [the National Insurance Institute] and not even a penny from the state,” she lamented.

Eden Tesfamariam. (Courtesy)

Tesfamariam, who works part-time as as a translator at ASSAF, said she’s been able to feed her 17, 13 and 6-year-old children in recent weeks thanks to food packages from “kindhearted Israelis.”

“Without that I don’t know what we’d have done,” she said, adding that while she’s been able to pay rent until now, the coming months will likely pose a challenge.

Tesfamariam recalled going to the doctor last week (for a non-coronavirus-related illness) and being prescribed a medication that she could not afford.

“I only had 100 shekels in my pocket, so I decided to wait until I get my next paycheck,” she said.

Ehrenthal argued that while there may be an inclination among government officials to focus their economic assistance efforts on those who hold citizenship, what the virus has demonstrated is that the struggles of one community become the problems of the surrounding ones as well — regardless of residency status.

A woman takes care of children from families of African migrants at a day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. The faces of the children were blurred to protect their identities. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“If you leave families on the streets, they will contract the virus and infect others,” she said. “Homelessness is not an outcome that will promote anyone’s interests.”

Tesfamariam added that while asylum seekers need all the help they can get from the state, their main request is simply to be allowed access to their money in the fund. “These are tens of thousands of shekels that are just sitting there,” she said.

“When there’s a regime change and democracy in Eritrea, we’ll return there and share how much we suffered here,” she added, asserting that she had no interest in staying in Israel indefinitely, dismissing claims from anti-immigration activists to the contrary.

Medical workers wearing full protective clothing at a site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in south Tel Aviv on April 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Despite the difficulty of her situation, Tesfamariam said that the Israelis who have been providing her and her family with food in recent weeks have given her hope.

“Like you, we made it through Sinai,” she said, tying her difficult trek to reach asylum in Israel to the Passover holiday.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to get through this as well.”

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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