By Caron Creighton
TEL AVIV — African migrants in Israel have been detained, threatened with deportation and faced hostility from lawmakers and residents. Since last year, they face another burden: a de facto 20 percent salary cut that has driven them further into poverty.
Israel’s roughly 35,000 African migrants and the groups that support them say the recent law — in which Israel withholds the money from their paychecks every month and returns it only if they leave the country — is yet another attempt by an anti-migrant government to force them out.
“I feel that they started the ‘deposit law’ to make our life miserable,” said Salamwit Willedo, a migrant from Eritrea who came to Israel in 2010. “We suffer for eight years here. If I had a country, why am I living here?”
The Africans, mainly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea, began arriving in Israel in 2005 through its porous border with Egypt after Egyptian forces violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the desert border, often after enduring dangerous journeys, before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.
Since then, Israel has wrestled with how to cope with those already in the country. Many took up menial jobs in hotels and restaurants, and thousands settled in southern Tel Aviv, where Israeli residents began complaining of rising crime.
While the migrants say they are refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, Israel views them as job-seekers who threaten the Jewish character of the state.
Israel has gone from detaining them in remote desert prisons to purportedly reaching a deal with a third country, believed to be Rwanda, to have them deported there.
In April, Israel reached an agreement with the United Nations to have many, but not all, of the migrants resettled in Western countries, with others allowed to stay in Israel. But the government quickly scrapped the deal after an outcry by hard-line politicians and residents of the hardscrabble areas where many of the migrants live.
The measures have kept the migrants living in limbo. The overwhelming majority have not been granted asylum and they lead a tenuous existence, often at the whims of the government.
Israel doesn’t hide its intentions behind the “deposit law,” which according to the Interior Ministry, is meant to make Israel a less attractive option for migrants.
The law requires migrants’ employers to hand over 20 percent of their salaries to the state, which says it keeps the money until the migrants leave, at which point they can reclaim the cash.
Unlike a tax, the withholding doesn’t grant the migrants any additional social services, to which their access is already limited. Employers are also tasked with storing an additional 16 percent of migrant’s salaries toward a pension fund, making this social benefit inaccessible until asylum seekers choose to leave Israel.
Employers who hire migrants must also pay an additional tax, implemented to encourage employment of Israeli citizens over foreigners.
Caron Creighton is an Associated Press writer.