Every day in Israel, refugee and asylum seekers are facing an impossible choice: either indefinite detention at the Holot center in the Negev or “voluntary” deportation from the state of Israel. Both options deprive refugees and asylum seekers of their opportunity to earn a secure living for themselves and their families.
This choice comes as a result of the revised version of the Anti-Infiltration Law, an effort by lawmakers to bypass a High Court September 2013 decision which made illegal the indefinite detention and imprisonment of refugees without trial. This new law is the latest attempt to encourage the evacuation of refugees from Israel, and it is leading to a deterioration of the everyday living conditions of refugees, especially in regards to their rights as workers.
In Israel, labor law applies to all workers regardless of their legal status. In practice however, refugees and asylum seekers are often used as a source of cheap and exploitable labor. They face unique barriers in obtaining the wages and benefits owed to them due to language barriers, difficulties they face in securing initial employment, and a lack of knowledge about their own rights as workers. The passage of the latest Anti-Infiltrator law is adding to these challenges. It makes the obtainment of their wages, benefits, and the protection of their human right to work even more difficult.
For refugees, the consequence of staying in Israel is imprisonment in the middle of the desert in poor conditions. Yet for those who “choose” deportation over detention, they have only a short time period to secure any outstanding payments entitled to them for their work (wages, severance, benefits) especially because of the widespread suspicion that deportation will be imminent. They can be called on at any time by the authorities to leave. This can prevent them from pursuing any necessary legal action against employers to receive what is owed to them. Moreover, the “voluntary” classification of those who leave makes them ineligible to receive any severance pay that they would have normally received in the event of not having a “decision”, such as being laid off or forced to resign. This deportation however, is not a choice. By labeling it as such and forcing refugees to forfeit their wages and benefits, Israel is depriving them of their human rights.
Refugees who refuse to be coerced into leaving the country are sent to a prison called the Holot Open Facility. Refugees summoned to Holot also struggle to collect their wages and benefits in a short amount of time, and employers are unfortunately making the process worse. Many employers, whether due to confusion about their responsibilities or intentional withholding of payment, also have not paid their workers severance upon their arrest or summons to Holot despite being obligated by a previous court ruling. While the detention center is considered to be “open,” allowing refugees to come and go, the reality is that they are located in the middle of the desert, miles away from any town and must be present at three role calls per day. This effectively makes refugees and asylum seekers unable to venture out and gain employment, leaving them unable to provide for themselves and their families.
Despite the way the law is written, refugees do not have the luxury of choice. By creating conditions that force refugees to either be detained where they cannot work nor live freely, or leave the country and forfeit vital income and benefits in which they worked daily to earn, the Knesset has implicitly stripped them of their ability to be self-sufficient Refugees are not the “economic infiltrators” that the government has branded them – the majority have come to Israel because they are fleeing political persecution primarily in war torn Sudan and Eritrea.
The Supreme Court is currently deliberating on a challenge to this law, which will hopefully be overturned under the same premise as the last version: “They [refugees] are entitled to the rights of liberty and dignity conferred by the Basic Law on any person, as a person.” [Section 45 of the judgment]. Refugees are still human beings, and they deserve to be treated by the law with the same dignity as any citizen as Israel with respect to their rights. They deserve the wages they have earned.
Until a decision is reached, the violation of the workers rights of refugees and asylum seekers can be curtailed by employees and employers becoming aware of both the implications of the new anti-infiltration law as well as knowing their obligations and rights under existing labor laws. It is imperative that employers respect the human dignity of their refugee workers by paying them all wages that they are owed, regardless of either imminent detention or deportation. Receiving this income is ultimately vital to the long-term welfare of refugees and asylum seekers, as the future of work opportunities for them in the current climate becomes increasingly bleak.