Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

ASSAF's Executive Director's Speech at the 66th session of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, September 2019

Ms. Tali Ehrenthal's speech was given at the formal briefing of the Committee's 66th session in Geneva, 30 September 2019. Click here to find out more

Good afternoon Committee members. 

My name is Tali Ehrenthal, CEO of ASSAF - Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel.  I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in front of you here today. 

For more than ten years, ASSAF has been at the forefront of promoting economic and social rights for asylum seekers in Israel. The information detailed in our report to the Committee is the result of daily support and interaction with asylum seekers in Israel and ongoing monitoring and analysis of their issues that affect them, in policy and in practice. 

There are around 30,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. They have been  living under a minimal protection policy for over a decade. They are protected from deportation to their home countries, but have only temporary “conditional release” status, they are not eligible for social security, public health care services or public social services, except for emergencies, and their right to work is indeterminate and limited. This has been the situation since 2006. 

This so-called “temporary” protection policy is not legislated or written anywhere. In recent years, after relentless pressure, the Israeli authorities have periodically announced various plans to reform services -  open more health clinics, or expand emergency social services. They establish committees, start reviews and mapping projects, and announce budgets - but this usually ends up being little more than bureaucratic smoke screen to appease the courts.

In reality almost nothing has changed. Every once in  a while, and only following intense advocacy efforts we manage to get a placement for a vulnerable disabled refugee in an emergency institution. Women who find themselves in acute danger as a result  of domestic violence can get a place in a shelter. None of them will get any rehabilitation or preventive care. The disabled asylum seeker will have no chance of rehabilitating and resuming a self-sufficient and dignified life. Women will continue to be trapped in a cycle of violence. Asylum seekers will continue to live with no proper healthcare, other than in cases of emergency. One clinic in Israel caters for all uninsured asylum seekers in Israel who need healthcare. One clinic in Israel caters for asylum seekers with mental health issues. Asylum seekers, many of them victims of torture, receive no support in dealing with mental health needs. As a result, many  stop functioning, lose their jobs and their homes, or stop being able to take care of their children. 

Throughout the years asylum seekers in Israel have been subjected to a plethora of punitive measures, including detention and deportation to third countries - a plan which was halted at the last minute due to international pressure. The current punitive measure is the deposit law. 

Since 2017, Israel is obliging employers to deduct up to 20% of the salary of asylum seekers every month and put it in a Departure Fund. They can only access their hard-earned money when they leave Israel, although the state acknowledges that they cannot return home.

As the years go by, the asylum seekers community in Israel is becoming poorer, more marginalized and more vulnerable. Parents stop paying for their children’s health insurance because of the deposit law. We have seen a rise in prostitution for survival. More and more people are coming to ASSAF asking for aid with food parcels and baby food.  

Instead of gradually becoming stronger, and integrating into society, asylum seekers in Israel are becoming weaker, more excluded and more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking. This is what the systematic restriction of economic and social rights does to a  refugee community.   

Despite this being called a temporary policy, there is nothing temporary here. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have no prospect of changing their status in Israel. Their asylum applications are ignored. Only 13 Eritreans and one Sudanese have received refugee status in Israel. They are trapped. The measures used against them are unreasonable and disproportionate. Their social and economic rights are being restricted as a way to penalize them for coming to Israel to seek protection. This has to stop. 

A few years ago, a former Israeli interior minister said about African asylum seekers - we cannot deport them to their home countries, but we will make their lives miserable until they leave. This is the gist of the story.

However, the recent elections in Israel have created a window of opportunity for change. I hope the committee sends a clear message to the state of Israel: restriction of social and economic rights cannot be used as a way to push refugees out. 

Thank you very much.