By: Ariella Plachta
On January 14th, Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union presented a controversial bill to the public and the Ministerial Legislation Committee demanding that Israel grant work permits and health insurance to 41,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. Though shot down in committee on January 17th, the proposition marks a victory for African asylum seekers in Israel and their advocates. For nearly 10 years, the Israeli Supreme Court has contended that Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers including indefinite detention of African migrants without trial and pressuring “voluntary deportation” is unlawful. The Israeli opposition is thus presenting a compassionate and economically viable alternative to the Netanyahu government’s policy that should be seriously considered as an opportunity to lawfully integrate asylum seekers and begin rebuilding South Tel Aviv.
Israel has long been torn between acquiescing to humanitarian demands of non-Jews in need and fears about maintaining its Jewish and democratic character and security in the Middle East. Around 60,000 African asylum seekers have entered Israel since 2005, predominantly fleeing Eritrea’s civil war and the reinvigoration of violence in Sudan. The 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law and its subsequent amendments represent the primary body of law regarding asylum seekers in Israel. Since 2012 Israel has implemented a policy of temporary non-deportation, officially referred to as “group protection.” Specifically, this policy denies asylum seekers in Israel basic rights and access to social services, and potentially subjects them to indefinite arbitrary detention in detention centers and prisons such as the Holot detention center in the Negev. Former interior minister Eli Yishai has unapologetically stated, the standing policy aims to “to make their lives miserable” until they willingly accept deportation.
Under the proposed law, cities agreeing to accept the African asylum seekers will receive financial incentives to reduce concentrations of asylum seeker populations in south Tel Aviv alongside efforts to rebuild decaying south Tel Aviv infrastructure. The law would be passed on temporary provision for five years, as reported by Haaretz.
The Zionist Union’s policy is in line with the Supreme Court of Israel, which has, in two different decisions, affirmed that the State’s treatment of African asylum seekers is unacceptable and violates fundamental laws concerning human dignity and liberty. The Supreme Court insisted on a comprehensive policy that addresses this issue. However, the coalition government remains noncompliant.
Executive director of the African Refugee Development Center in southern Tel Aviv, Mutasim Ali, perceives the Zionist Union bill as a positive move towards a better Israel. “Generally speaking,” he states, “this is the right direction the government should be taking and we’ve been calling on Israel to accept its obligation to give basic rights and a dignified life to asylum seekers for quite a long time.” He acknowledges, however, that “the chances of this passing are very limited with a right-wing public and Knesset.” Further, according to Ali, the bill fails to address the asylum claims filed by of those already under group protection.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu has not made any public statements on Herzog’s proposed bill, he has argued in the past that granting tens of thousands of work permits would hurt the Israeli workforce. However, Zionist Union Knesset chairwoman MK Merav Michaeli defends that the proposed bill allows “the state to stop importing new foreign workers and simply use those who are already here.”
Despite some deficiencies with the bill, Herzog is providing a clear alternative to the problematic policy of the Netanyahu government, which chooses to import thousands of labor workers into Israel while attempting to deport African asylum seekers. These asylum seekers are not only already in Israel seeking work, but also are unable to return to their home countries for legitimate fears of violence and persecution.
By addressing the issue of African asylum seekers in Israel, Herzog bolsters his position as leading Israel’s opposition in the Knesset and highlights an issue on which his policies are not only more humanitarian than Netanyahu’s but also can provide economic benefits to the state.
According to Adi Drori Avraham who heads the Advocacy Department of the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, “After 10 years under limbo, threat of detention, deteriorating conditions in Tel Aviv and frustrated Israelis alike, we now have a clearly voiced plan on asylum seekers in Israel. I am no fortune teller, but I choose to be optimistic. And I think there’s a very important development happening here.”
Ariella Plachta is a Senior at the University of California Santa Barbara studying Political Science and Writing. She has previously worked with Vietnamese asylum seekers in Thailand for the NGO Boat People SOS.
Photo Credit: Roi Boshi Wikimedia Commons