It was one of the wordiest, most sophisticated protest placards I’ve ever seen. The pink sign, gripped by two Filipino-Israeli boys, read in Hebrew: “Prime minister, how long will children, innocent of crime, pay the price for the situation you created with your own hands?” There were other slogans, too, at Tuesday afternoon’s demonstration against deportation, some catchy. “Kids aren’t criminals,” protesters chanted. “Why are they being arrested?” (It rhymes in Hebrew.)
But as the pink sign suggests, the struggle against the deportation of migrant workers and their children has gotten complicated. In the past, it was simple: These children speak Hebrew; they go to school here; they want to go to the army. They’re Israeli. So, they must stay here, in Israel.
But now that the state is deporting toddlers and infants—babies who speak no language at all—the issue has been stripped of its nationalist trappings. The debate, which is hardly raging anymore (at least not in the Israeli press), has been boiled down to the essential underlying problems: human rights, capitalism, and fair application of the law.
On Tuesday, only 50 Israeli and Filipino activists showed up at a distant corner of Ben Gurion International Airport to protest the latest round of deportations. Far from the public eye, demonstrators stood outside a small, two-story building—a lock-up facility where the state holds migrant workers and their children before expulsion. A ramp leading to the terminal was visible behind them. The road was lined with blue-and-white Israeli flags flapping in the wind.
The expulsions began in March, after a fierce public battle that spanned 20 months.
The government first announced its intention to deport undocumented migrant workers and their children in July 2009. A total of 1,200 children faced deportation. Then in August 2010, bowing to public pressure, the Israeli Cabinet set criteria that led to the naturalization of 700 of them. Most, but not all, of the 500 children still to be deported are under the age of 5. These families are being deported one at a time.
While a protest held in May 2010 attracted almost 10,000 demonstrators rallying against the deportations, the press and public are having a harder time rallying around the youngest deportees now.
“When people are against the deportation, they always imagine a 10-year-old that speaks Hebrew and goes to the Israeli school system and the scouts,” said Rotem Ilan, co-founder of Israeli Children, a grassroots movement that sprang up in response to the government’s deportation plans. “When they are talking about a 3-year-old, they don’t see him in the same way. But even a child that is 1 year old is traumatized by being in jail.”
“Their parents didn’t do any crime,” she added. “We made them illegal.”
A majority of the migrant workers who have been deported arrived to Israel legally, on 63-month state visas. Many still had current visas when they gave birth. But when their infants reached 3 months, Israeli policy forced the mothers to make a choice: Either stick their baby on a plane and keep their legal status as guest-workers or keep their child and become illegal.
In early April, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the policy that had put these workers in that bind, with Justice Ayala Procaccia reading from the ruling. “[It] does not conform to Israel labor laws protecting workers’ rights during pregnancy and after birth,” she said. “It also contravenes the protection of migrant workers’ rights as determined by international conventions.”
But in part because Israel lacks a constitution, the state can essentially ignore the high court’s decision, as it has done for rulings on the barrier through the West Bank Palestinian village of Bilin and for media access to the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead.
Indeed, five years ago, the court struck down the policy of binding a migrant worker’s legal status to one particular employer, likening the arrangement to “modern day slavery.”
But last month, the Knesset circumvented the decision by amending the decades-old Entry Law. The additions will require migrant caregivers to live in certain regions of the country and will limit the number of times they can change employers. Human rights groups such as the Association for Human Rights in Israel called the new law the “Slavery Law,” claiming the amendment “severely harms” the “fundamental human rights” of caregivers.
And now, more than six weeks after the court struck down the policy that made expulsions possible, the state of Israel is continuing to carry out deportations.
A pregnant Filipina woman I’ll identify as “M” was one of the first to be expelled. She was picked up in late March of this year, along with her 3-year-old son. The children’s father, a Thai citizen working in Israel, had been deported to Thailand several months before. Because they were deported individually to their home countries—instead of as a group—it is unlikely that the young family will be reunited.
M faced other problems. She was in debt, as are a large majority of migrant laborers in Israel. Israeli employment agencies charge anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 or more for work and visa arrangements. Most workers cover this fee with unregulated loans that take years to repay. This is known as “debt bondage.”
According to Israeli law, the manpower agencies that recruit foreign workers can charge only 3,050 shekels, or about $900, for their services. But these groups are facing much less persecution than the undocumented workers and their children. And, largely unchecked, they continue to profit from the deportations because the so-called revolving door means new workers must pay fresh fees to replace the departing ones, as demand for their services remains high.
While the Israeli employment agencies have always been problematic, there used to be more oversight. Before the summer of 2009, the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor monitored manpower agencies. Rivka Makover was in charge of licensing. I met her in March 2009—a petite woman who looked diminished and weary behind a huge, metal desk, overflowing with files. When she started in her position in July 2004, Makover told me, there were 350 manpower companies. Since then, she had revoked more than 230 licenses.
Just a few months after I met Makover, a major restructuring put the Ministry of Interior in charge. The ministry’s oft-criticized Oz Unit, the enforcement arm the Population and Immigration Authority, was formed, and deportations were announced. The focus seemed to shift from regulating the manpower agencies to kicking out the workers and their children.
Recently, Idit Lebovitch, an attorney with Kav LaOved, a local NGO that advocates for migrant, Palestinian, and Israeli workers, sent a dozen complaints to the Interior Ministry about agencies. “We have proof that they were involved in money things—things that Rivka [Makover] would close them for,” she told me. “And there was no action taken.”
Mya Guarnieri is an American-Israeli journalist and writer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in the The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, and The National, among other publications.