On Tuesday, the Israeli government called off its contentious plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers to other African countries.
This was not so much a considered policy choice as the consequence of the erosion of all other options. Earlier in the month, Prime Minister Netanyahu capsized a U.N.-brokered deal to resettle half of the asylum seeker population in Israel, and the other half in Western countries. At the same time, previous deals with other African countries to take in the deportees also collapsed. After the Israeli Supreme Court demanded that the government either provide proof that it could resettle the population safely elsewhere or release them from detention, Netanyahu’s government had no choice but to cancel its deportation plan and extend the visas of those it was meant to target.
None of this is to say, however, that the saga is over. Netanyahu has vowed to pass a law to circumvent the Israeli Supreme Court on this issue. Meanwhile, the entire asylum seeker population remains in limbo and subject to serious restrictions on their livelihood, housing, and integration. What then can be done to help Israel’s asylum seekers? Activists on the ground have some ideas.
“We need to figure out how those who are staying can live here in dignity and live here with all of their humanitarian needs taken care of,” Julie Fisher of the Consortium For Israel and the Asylum Seekers told me earlier this month. Fisher first arrived in Israel in 2011 with her husband Daniel Shapiro, who served as President Obama’s ambassador to the Jewish state through 2016. She has since become a pivotal point person in efforts to assist Israel’s asylum seeker population, helping raise money, build schools, and provide for other basic needs.
There are major policy obstacles, however, that make this more difficult. “We need to ask when this community can have access to their full wages,” Fisher said. “Right now, there’s a 20 percent wage withholding which is partially why I and many other volunteers are driving food down to South Tel Aviv, because the meager wages that people are making—and they’re paying taxes, of course—are not enough to pay for their food and their shelter, and certainly not for health care.”
So how can others help Israel’s asylum seekers? Shapiro offers a laundry list of groups worthy of support. “There are some very wonderful organizations here,” she noted, that are devoted to this issue. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants provides support and legal representation for asylum seekers, and monitors conditions in local detention centers. Assaf advocates for the community politically, runs youth programming, and provides psychological and social support to those in need. Unitaf works to ensure that the children of asylum seekers have access to safe, regulated day care and after-school programming. HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) has an Israel chapter that provides asylum seekers with legal services and trains a volunteer network of Israeli advocates to assist them. Finally, there is Fisher’s own organization, Consortium For Israel and the Asylum Seekers, which serves as a clearinghouse and hub for these and many other NGOs, and helps connect those who wish to help with those in need of it.
Whether there is a direct threat of deportation or not, Fisher said, “I hope that people stay engaged.”