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For African Migrants in Israel, a Life of Hardship in the Promised Land


FILE - African migrants sit outside Holot detention center in the Negev Desert, southern Israel, April 21, 2015.

Sitting on a ledge in front of Ayelew Desale's grocery store behind Tel Aviv's central bus station, Selemon Tesfy inhaled the last bits of his cigarette and recalled his flight from Eritrea to avoid a lifetime of servitude. He was kidnapped in Sudan, sold to Sinai Bedouins, and freed only after his family gathered its savings, borrowed money, went begging and paid $30,000 to secure his release.

Tesfy reached Israel in 2011 and repaid his debt, but last year Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed a law that slashed his take-home pay. Now employers who hire illegal migrants like Tesfy must deposit 20 percent of their pay in a fund where it will stay until they leave the country, providing they leave when ordered to go. Tesfy, who cleans knives in the meat section of a supermarket, said he can no longer send remittances home.

Several human rights and aid organizations have appealed the law to Israel's High Court of Justice. "Deteriorating poor people to even more bitter poverty is extremely brutal," they argued in their complaint.

One aid organization, Kav La'Oved, said that since that law passed, about 300 people reported moving to jobs where they were paid in cash, cut expenses on food and medicine, or were working longer hours. Assaf, another aid organization, said that more than 1,300 people have requested food or live in fear of losing their jobs. Many experience health and mental problems.

Bisrat Gebryesus, director of the Eritrean Women's Center in Israel, says prostitution is on the rise. Most mothers are single parents who need money for food and kindergarten expenses. Gebryesus said a woman in this situation sometimes has "no choice but to sell her body."

FILE - African migrants wear chains to represent slavery during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 3, 2018.
FILE - African migrants wear chains to represent slavery during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 3, 2018.

None of the people interviewed for this report said they cut down on the amount of food they buy. Desale, the grocer, noticed no change in his clients' purchasing habits.

But what is obvious is that people are moving to more crowded homes. Beni Shasha, a real estate agent, said he has noted suffocating, dirty apartments with four, five or six people sleeping in a room.

Solomon Gebreyohanes left a small apartment to share another with three other men.

Gebreyohanes cleans offices and translates at Assaf, the aid organization. He used to film community events and edit them, but not anymore. In his current apartment, there is no room for his computer. "I can't make any noise," he said.

Solomon Gebreyohanes, 29, of the village of Tselimkala in southern Eritrea wanted to go to Europe, was detained on the Libyan coast, and changed course to Israel where he is struggling to make ends meet. (J. Brilliant/VOA)
Solomon Gebreyohanes, 29, of the village of Tselimkala in southern Eritrea wanted to go to Europe, was detained on the Libyan coast, and changed course to Israel where he is struggling to make ends meet. (J. Brilliant/VOA)

Targeting 'infiltrators'

The law passed last year aims to push illegal migrants to leave.

Israeli officialdom calls them "infiltrators." Most are from Eritrea and Sudan, so sending them home would violate international norms that prohibit repatriation to countries where they might be exposed to torture or cruel, degrading punishment. Except for rare exceptions, there is no other country willing to host them.

In recent years, Israel locked thousands of migrants in the desert, outlawed hiring them, then paid them to go to Rwanda and Uganda. The courts outlawed the detentions and the options for sending migrants to Rwanda and Uganda fizzled out.

Israel then signed an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whereby the U.N. would relocate half the migrants and Israel would issue visas to the other half. The migrants are prominent in some low-income Tel Aviv neighborhoods and their Israeli neighbors, who claim to be living in fear, protested vehemently. Right-wing politicians joined the critics and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the agreement.

The 35,000 so-called infiltrators hardly scratch the overall demography of Israel and its population of almost 9 million. But the government is concerned that infiltrators would flood Israel if it hints at readiness to accept them, said Dr. Amnon Kartin of Tel Aviv University who specializes in geography and state policies. Israel would then cease having a Jewish character, he added.

FILE - Asylum seekers protest against deportation in Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 24, 2018.
FILE - Asylum seekers protest against deportation in Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 24, 2018.

Enforcing new law

The government has, nevertheless, been lax in enforcing the new take-home pay law. The manager of a branch of the Israeli Aroma Cafe chain in the central Israeli city of Modiin was surprised to hear such a law existed. A pay slip he had for an African employee showed the only deductions were for income tax and payments to the Israeli national insurance system.

In Tel Aviv, Mula Avraham, an Eritrean who handles stock in a grocery store, said uneducated migrants succumbed to the law but others who can read and follow developments persuaded employers not to cut their pay. "The [deducted] money would be lost. Really lost," he said, adding that many workers switch jobs and "where will you find that money? What lawyer will search for it?"

Gebreyohanes fears asking his employers for proof that they have properly deposited his money. "They can fire me," he explained.

At the court hearing, the state attorney's representative, Shosh Shmueli, confirmed that "no deposits were made for most of the infiltrators."

The President of the Supreme Court, Justice Esther Hayut, ordered the government to report by October 7 what it is doing to enforce compliance. One of the justices, Isaac Amit, put it bluntly. The government's action, Amit said, "is [designed] to make the workers' lives miserable."

An earlier version of this story misspelled Solomon Gebreyohanes' name. VOA regrets the error.

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