Staring into the Abyss – Asylum Seekers in Israel During COVID-19
“I only think about today. How will I survive today? How will I manage today? How will I get food today? If a person cannot think about tomorrow, they are not truly alive”
B., asylum seeker from Eritrea, single mother of 4 children
ASSAF’s report – Staring into the Abyss – Asylum Seekers in Israel During COVID-19 – describes and summarizes the first year of COVID-19 in Israel (March 2020 until March 2021) as experienced by asylum seekers in the country; the report examines the economic, physical and mental impacts of the pandemic and the following economic crisis on asylum seekers, and the ongoing ramifications of the crisis on their lives today.
The COVID-19 crisis exposed the injustices and the damage that the long-standing government policies have caused and continue to cause to asylum seekers, and their effects on the general Israeli population. Following years with no status and social rights, the outbreak of the pandemic and the economic shutdown immediately worsened the state of the asylum seekers’ community to one on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. The crisis caused severe economic and mental distress, a dramatic increase in food insecurity among asylum seekers and their children and an increase in their evictions from their homes due to their inability to pay the rent. The crisis has also pushed more women from the community to engage in survival sex. Despite the re-opening of the economy in March 2021, many asylum seekers are still struggling to overcome the severe economic distress that the past year has created, while it is now (October 2021) also becoming apparent that the pandemic will continue to affect us next year. It is estimated that many asylum seekers will continue to suffer from the effects of this crisis for many more months to come.
Although 29,000 asylum seekers, that are living in Israel today with their children (8,000), have been residing in the country for almost 15 years, and although they reside here lawfully and the state of Israel acknowledges the threats they face if they were to return to their home countries – the state withholds their recognition as refugees as well as access to health and welfare services, such as social security allowances, medical insurance and social services.
Without social and economic rights, asylum seekers were of the first social groups to be negatively affected by the economic crisis that followed the pandemic which began in Israel in February-March 2020:In the blink of an eye, with the first lockdown, 80% of the asylum seekers found themselves unemployed. Those who lost their jobs were left with no medical insurance and had no right to receive unemployment benefits and severance pay. Excluded from the support provided to the general population by the National Insurance Institute of Israel (Bituach Leumi), asylum seekers and their families were rendered with no income and in crisis. The effects worsened as the pandemic went on; asylum seekers who previously had no need for ASSAF’s support started to arrive at the organisation’s offices, asking for food; more women arrived with their young children, asking for basic products including baby formula, diapers and medicine; inquiries regarding inability to pay rent and the imminent risk of being evicted from their homes out to the street with the children have increased, along with severe mental distress; families found alternative solutions such as living in an apartment with another family as 4-5 people stayed in the same room, or sleeping on a kindergarten floor; and parents also told ASSAF that they cannot continue to pay their children’s medical insurance and so they are forced to leave them with no option for medical services.
The report recounts the stories of the most vulnerable among the asylum seekers community – single mothers, survivors of torture, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, and children – as told by the asylum seekers themselves and ASSAF’s staff. Alongside the testimonies, the report brings facts and figures regarding the ongoing impact of the first COVID-19 year on asylum seekers in different aspects – loss of income, food insecurity, loss of the ability to pay rent, damage to physical and mental health, and the harm caused to the family unit and the children. To read two selected testimonials from the report, please see the attachment to the Executive Summary.
The state of Israel must learn the lessons brought on by the pandemic and formulate a support network that will allow asylum seekers to live in Israel with dignity, while providing a fair and efficient examination of their applications for asylum. This support network should include comprehensive social services, a medical insurance arrangement (subsidised public health insurance) accessible to all asylum seekers, the ability to issue driver’s licenses and occupational licenses to those that meet the conditions of the law, and providing support to the children who suffer from severe developmental delays. This is not just our legal and moral obligation, but it is also essential to preventing the next humanitarian crisis and protecting the health of all of us.
Alongside these necessary reforms, there are 10 steps that can be executed now to improve the harsh socio-economic state of the asylum seekers community:
- Including asylum seekers suffering from severe economic distress in any long-term general solution that will be found for food insecurity in Israel.
- Providing vulnerable asylum seekers with community welfare services, including vocational rehabilitation and day centres, as well as a dedicated budget for the social workers assisting them within the community.
- Providing asylum seekers with access to social security allowances, first and foremost to the most vulnerable groups among them: people with disabilities, single mothers, parents to children with disabilities and the elderly.
- Ensuring full access to out-of-home placements for vulnerable asylum seekers who are entitled to them according to the Ministry of Welfare’s policies, while accommodating the placements to their needs through comprehensive implementation and budgeting of the relevant policies.
- Providing all asylum seekers with access to a subsidised medical insurance arrangement and ensuring that vulnerable asylum seekers who cannot afford the subsidised fees are also included, and that the arrangement also allows access to mental health services.
Employment and Licences
- Allowing asylum seekers to receive a driver’s license and permits for electric bicycles and scooters, subject to compliance with the terms of the law.
- Allowing asylum seekers to receive occupational licenses for professional employment, subject to compliance with the terms of the law.
Providing integration and support to children of asylum seekers to decrease severe development gaps. This includes –
- Providing the education staff with language and cultural mediation that will allow them to communicate effectively with asylum-seeking parents.
- Providing the education staff with professional development training and support that will equip them with the appropriate knowledge and skills to advance the children’s education.
- Providing the children with additional tutoring hours that will focus on closing the gaps especially in Hebrew language subjects.
“The government’s policy of withholding an economic and social safety net from the refugees among us with the aim of driving them to leave, did not only not achieve its goal (because they have nowhere to leave to), but also caused severe damages: the pandemic has reminded us that the health of an individual affects the health of all of us, and a hostile policy that denies a support system to one community has an effect on us all.”
Tali Ehrental, MSW, ASSAF’s Executive Director