Making Remittances Illegal May Encourage Migration to Israel

A recent draft law outlaws money remittances from migrants in Israel back to families in their countries of origin. The goal of the law is to reduce “the economic incentive” of migration to Israel, according to the Justice Ministry. However, the law may actually create an incentive for migrants to stay in Israel and to bring family members to Israel.

Based on interviews I conducted in South Sudan, including Juba and in the two northern towns of Aweil and Wau, families who returned from Israel (before deportations for South Sudanese began in May this year) did so because they were confident they would receive remittances from one family member still in Israel. Five families who I spoke to all relied on remittances sent from Israel to buy food, build shelters out of straw mats, and set up businesses. I spoke with twelve children who attend school paid for from remittances their fathers sent from Israel in 2011. They returned in order to learn English in school, and this is only possible through remittances. The recent decision to deny South Sudanese the right to work, and the draft law to outlaw remittances, directly endangers the lives and education of those South Sudanese who have already returned and creates yet another reason not to return. Even those with no employment in Israel would, if the law were to pass, have a reason to stay for basic food and education. These are only available for most in South Sudan if a family member can remit money from Israel.

The policy may also create an incentive for more to reach Israel to begin with. This is because the law would no longer enable one family member living in Israel to send money home.  A lack of remittances from a developed country is a reason to move to a developed country, not a reason to stay in a developing country. For example, Maria*, a South Sudanese who used to live in Israel, initially went to Israel precisely because she never received remittances from a brother in the United States while she was in Egypt. She felt she had no option but to move from Egypt to Israel, where she and her husband started working. Soon, she decided to return with their children to South Sudan, while he stayed behind in Israel, working in a hotel. Her husband, as of March 2012, could send remittances to her. This is why she went back to South Sudan. What is left of these remittances go towards school fees, food, and shelter for her children. The remittances have stopped since her husband could no longer work in Israel. Staying where she is, even if this is what she wants, may soon no longer be a possibility. Her story shows how a lack of remittances can be a reason to move to Israel, and how access to remittances can be a reason to return to and stay in South Sudan.

Nor are remittances simple transfers of money. They are often a strategy of diversifying investments, which can create more local jobs. Individuals send money back home, which is invested in short term ventures, such as a local shop.  Joseph*, who joined his family in South Sudan in late March after sending them remittances for over a year, was in the midst of building the structure of a small shop, part of his home in Aweil. The home that was bought, which provided him a location for his shop, was built with remittances before he returned, and created a sense of security that made his return somewhat more viable. Similarly, I ate a magnificent sandwich in Aweil in a restaurant opened by Abouk* who had returned from Israel a year earlier. She opened the restaurant with money remitted by a family member in the United States. Indeed, the fact that the Unites States gave her son refugee status allowed him to have an income in the US and send her money to Aweil, which allows her to stay in Aweil, which is what she wants. In contrast, refugees and migrants in Israel never had the option of sending money to family members in South Sudan, nor do any refugees from any country have this option, forcing them to leave their countries, even if they do not want to.

In some cases, money remitted for a business can generate profits that, in turn, are remitted to other countries, generating more profit, and creating the security necessary to return home, or not migrate to Israel.  Abtom*, an Eritrean shop owner in Tel Aviv, told me that the investment funds for his shop came from remittances that his brother-in-law sent from Canada. His shop is successful enough in Israel for him to send remittances to his wife in Eritrea. His wife can stay in Eritrea because he can send money from Israel. Were the new law to pass, it would be highly unlikely that he would return to Eritrea, where he would have no livelihood to feed himself, let alone his family. He would not even have the option of paying a local Tel Aviv resident to manage his business and travel to another country or back to Eritrea, because profits could not be remitted.

The current policy of denying work visas for South Sudanese, in addition to potentially denying the right of all refugees and migrants to remit money in the future, creates another reason not to return. This is especially true in a post-war economy with little employment. Out of the thirty interviews I conducted in South Sudan, only two returnees from Israel had any employment at all. Starting a business with money from family in a developed country is the only way for many to even dream of making a living. Some investments may succeed in generating a profit and, in the long term, might create more employment for others returning, making them less dependent on remittances. This is not only an argument for how to help ‘economic migrants.’ It is especially true for former and current refugees. Those living in an economy shattered by war and persecution rely on remittances as much as other groups.

A law outlawing remittances does precisely what the government does not want to do. Denying individuals the ability to send remittances home will not only deny refugees the normative right to send money back to family members, but it will create an incentive for migrants and refugees to reach Israel, even when they might prefer not to.

*All names of interviewees changed

About the Author
Mollie Gerver is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics where she researches the repatriation and resettlement of African migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Israel.