Tel Aviv was never paradise. But to Alusine Idris Swaray, a Sierra
Leonian civil-servant-turned-house cleaner in Israel, sometimes
it seems like it was, once.
has lived in Israel since 1989 when he fled the civil war starting
to engulf his country. Soon after, he brought his wife, daughter,
and brother to live with him. They were part of a nascent African
diaspora that soon found company with migrant foreign workers from
a constellation of nations that Israel turned to for cheap manual
labor after it soured on Palestinian workers during the first Intifada.
shabby but bustling South Tel Aviv, these migrants and their families—from
China, the Philippines, Thailand, Eastern Europe, India, and even
parts of Latin America—formed a vibrant, bootstrapping community
of the sort that immigrant societies are supposed to delight in.
The people worked hard—in construction, agriculture, light
industry, and domestic care—and sent checks regularly to families
back home. The migrants posed little problem for the state or the
taxpayer: crime was low, work was plentiful, and the people generally
took care of each others’ needs for health care and unemployment
relief through mutual aid.
the weekends, a multicultural social life took over the streets
and parks of the neighborhood, attracting Israelis like Ilan Spira,
a photographer and journalist who documents the migrants’ doings
in a continuing series of ebullient pictures. The migrants spent
money and liked to go out dressed in their best clothes. Some 25
churches had full congregations and weddings and birthday parties
took place almost every weekend. The migrants also shared the vicissitudes
of life in Israel where several have been victims of suicide bombings.
people were not involved in politics,” says Swaray, who helped
found the African Workers Union to lobby for better access to everyday
amenities for the migrants, such as bank accounts and health insurance
and better enforcement of labor laws.
September 2002 the Sharon government set up a new Immigration Administration
to coordinate activities between the Interior and Justice Ministries
and the police in response to both severe unemployment and complaints
by the religious parties in its coalition that the migrants were
threatening Israel’s status as a Jewish state. The new unit
was generously funded and assigned a police force numbering almost
500 officers. It had, essentially, only one mission: to deport as
many foreign migrants as possible who lacked proper papers.
been grimly effective.
Sharon government initially called for the Immigration Administration
to expel 50,000 “illegal” migrant workers by the end of
2003 and 100,000 by 2005. Last September, the police unit reported
40,950 deportations thus far and that another 73,366 migrants had
left “of their own volition,” either out of fear of the
aggressive police campaign or because the family breadwinner had
been picked up and deported. Africans in particular, most of whom
came either as refugees, like Swaray, or overstayed tourist visas
to find work, have been nearly obliterated—only a few hundred
like South Tel Aviv are “ghost towns,” Swaray says. Most
migrants live essentially in hiding, rarely venturing into the streets
except to get to and from work. Often they spend more than they
can afford to carpool in taxis, since the police now comb the buses
for “illegals.” The churches have closed and Saturday
is a dead day in South Tel Aviv. It became too easy for the police
to pick up migrants when they left their houses or apartments. The
nice clothes are packed in boxes, ready for a friend or a human
rights worker to bring to the airport should the owner be picked
up for deportation. Many workers who remain have sent their valuables
out of the country and keep only those items they absolutely need.
a self-sufficient community, the migrants are sliding into poverty
and helplessness. Wives and children of deported workers are showing
up at offices of the municipality and NGOs asking for help to get
food, medicine, and other necessities. The Hotline for Migrant Workers,
which promotes the basic civil and human rights of migrants and
victims of human trafficking in Israel, says its call volume has
risen from about 90 per month before the crackdown to some 400 to
change in policy has also given employers major new leverage over
migrants, forcing them to accept even lower wages than in the past.
Otherwise, there’s the threat—frequently carried out—that
the boss will call the police and tell them that a worker has “run
policy is brutally enforced. Middle-of-the-night raids of communal
worker houses are common and large numbers of arrestees turn up
in hospitals with broken bones or other injuries or have lost their
unborn babies as a result of beatings. Detention in four specially
designated deportation centers has become an agonizing state of
limbo for many foreigners. It can last anywhere from a few hours
to a few months as mothers struggle to prove that they are not illegals
or that they have children who were born in the country—one
of the few factors that can enable them to stay without an employer.
Deportees have included thousands of legal workers swept up in the
raids and rushed out of the country before the Interior Ministry
has a chance to review their claims, a former deputy commander of
the immigration police told the newspaper
overtones surface in a public relations campaign by the Immigration
Authority that makes the charge that foreign migrants are taking
jobs from Israelis—ignoring the fact that few Israelis are
willing to take the “wet work” migrants typically do.
Government pamphlets and websites accuse migrants of undermining
the Jewish character of the state, boosting unemployment, even fueling
criminal activity and prostitution. At least once in 2003, an Immigration
Administration official suggested publicly that their presence could
now appear asking for help in tracking down “runaway”
workers who have left their sponsoring employer—like one that
turned up in an investigation by the International Federation for
Human Rights and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network in
2002, offering a reward of $3,000 each for the return of six Romanian
“escaped” workers. Appeals by the Immigration Administration
for tips about illegals—a cleaning person hiding out at a neighbor’s,
a construction worker sleeping on the site— netted some 6,000
“squeals” in less than 2 years,
the atmosphere was quite tolerant; there were no hate crimes,”
says Shecy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant
Workers. “But the deportation campaign has the effect of digging
out the hidden xenophobic feelings here.”
is similar to other industrialized countries with a high demand
for cheap foreign labor and that manage their burgeoning flow of
migrants through contracted or permitted labor schemes. The Bush
administration is now proposing a new bracero program, like the
one that brought Mexican workers to the U.S. for short periods from
the 1940s to the 1960s, at the same time that it is energetically
hunting down and deporting illegal immigrants. The Blair government
in the UK is trying to end the flow of asylum seekers into the country
even as it implements a similar temporary worker program (
Israel’s legal code is different. It includes a “binding
law” that essentially attaches migrants to a single employer
throughout their stay in the country. The effect is equivalent to
indentured servitude, illegal under international law. The only
other countries where this is practiced, somewhat ironically, are
the Persian Gulf states, including Oman, Kuwait, and the United
sheer presence of foreign migrant workers in Israel is also far
larger than in the other “Western” societies with which
Israel seeks to identify itself. As many as 300,000 non-Jewish migrants
(13 percent of the workforce) live and work in Israel. That’s
another point of similarity with the Jewish state’s Arab neighbors.
A 2000 UN report cites Israel as sharing with these countries the
distinction of having the highest percentages of international migrants
in the world: 37.4 percent of its total population (including naturalized
Jewish persons), placing it ahead of Oman (26.9 percent) and behind
the UAE (73.8 percent), Kuwait (57.9 percent), and Jordan (39.6
foreign workers— about two-thirds of them illegal—have
become, in effect, the unintended victims of Israel’s long
war of wills against the Palestinian people, as well as the unwitting
key to its effort to marginalize them. While better than 40,000
migrants have left Israel since the deportation campaign began,
the government issued 76,603 permits for new migrant workers in
just the first 9 months of last year. That compares with 111,380
issued in 2002, 102,886 in 2001, and 81,646 in 2000, but is still
far more than enough to sustain and even expand the foreign migrant
population as long as the deportation campaign continues.
did this happen? Most theories start with two factors: the influence
of large employers, especially in agriculture and construction,
over politicians; and employers’ determination to hold on to
a supply of cheap, unskilled labor.
third important element is high unemployment in Israel’s low-gear
“Intifada economy.” When the new policy toward migrants
was being debated in 2002, unemployment among Israelis stood at
around 300,000—roughly the same number of migrants then in
the state. Of course, there’s the state’s continuing desire
to remove Palestinians from the labor mix.
final ingredient is the migrants’ own ambiguous legal status.
The migrants represent a living contradiction to the very idea of
a Jewish national state. In principle, they are not supposed to
exist in Israel. The very name Immigration Administration is a technical
impossibility for non-Jews, yet non-Jews are the population with
which it is concerned.
created rules of admission for non-Jewish workers from overseas
in the 1980s to fill certain jobs requiring special skills. The
binding law was supposed to ensure that these situations remained
specific and rare. As soon as an employer no longer needs their
services, workers’ permits are revoked and they must leave
the country. The binding law remained in place even after Israel
started importing hundreds of thousands of unskilled migrants after
the 1980s. After 1995, moreover, foreign workers without papers
and no longer working for their sponsoring employer became subject,
at least nominally, to immediate deportation.
for a long time, racial hatred of migrants remained rare. Activists
like Swaray and Arnold Evangelista, who organized Filipino workers,
even cultivated ties with Knesset members and hoped with their help
to spark a gradual easing of the rules affecting migrants.
effort suffered its first blow in 2000, when a Thai worker killed
an Israeli. Suddenly the idea of regularizing the migrants’
status became politically delicate. When the economy worsened during
the second Intifada, the migrants found themselves easy scapegoats.
the binding law, the political influence of powerful employers’
groups, high unemployment among Israelis, and the country’s
self-identity as a Jewish state were the bed of kindling upon which
the migrant worker community rested, the 2002 crackdown was the
match that lit the fire. It vastly accelerated a vicious cycle of
exploitation that already existed in Israel, but had never before
been so virulent.
cycle is much like those that plague migrants in other countries
that rely on cheap labor, but with a few peculiarly Israeli twists,
like the binding law. It starts with recruiting agencies that canvass
countries like Thailand, China, Romania, and the Philippines for
workers. Usually working with a local firm— sometimes with
tight government connections, or even owned by the government—the
recruiters offer the workers a deal. For an up-front payment or
series of payments, workers can come to Israel where a job is waiting,
usually for the minimum wage of $600 to $700 a month.
much they hand over after borrowing from loan sharks depends on
the country: Chinese pay as much as $10,000, equal to up to 7 years’
wages back home. Romanians pay some $3,500 and Filipinos $5,000.
Such payments are illegal in Israel. Recruitment agencies in Romania
often require workers who want to go to Israel to sign a mortgage
on their houses as a guarantee they will fulfill their contract,
even though this is illegal in both countries and is considered
a form of “debt bondage” under international law. But
these laws are rarely enforced.
are seldom punished either when, as often happens, they bring groups
of workers into Israel and then abandon them because no job is actually
waiting. Those who do have jobs waiting often find they amount to
much less than advertised. Most pay less than minimum wage: 80 percent
of foreign migrants earn below the minimum, according to a 2000
study, versus about 10 percent of Israelis. Which makes paying back
one’s loan difficult, let alone sending money home to one’s
family. Work hours usually come to six or even seven days a week,
despite the fact that Israel’s labor laws, which extend to
foreign migrants, forbid it.
especially in the construction business, are often wretched. Workers
are often required to sleep on the building site, with no proper
sanitary facilities or sleeping quarters. When workers complain
about conditions, they tend to get a fast ticket home, as happened
to Arnold Evangelista, for whom the Hotline for Migrant Workers
tried to arrange a bail hearing when the Filipino activist was arrested
early in 2003. The hearing was preempted when the court learned
that the police had already bought him a ticket home at public expense.
binding law has enabled employers to turn migration into indentured
servitude in all but name.
reported in February
2003 that one manpower company, Y. Tsarfati, promised contractors
that the workers it supplied would not run away, offering $5,000
in compensation for anyone who tried.
typically confiscate workers’ passports, making it perilous
to venture out in public and impossible for them to legally obtain
a job with another employer. Interior Ministry officials reportedly
have been known to personally hand the passports to employers at
the airport. Because taking passports is a criminal offense in Israel
punishable by a year in prison and a fine, employers sometimes force
the worker to sign a statement authorizing the employer to hold
his or her passport for “safekeeping.”
locking migrants in place, employers often refuse to pay the workers
their wages until the job is well advanced or even completed. Sometimes
even then they never see their money—the employer instead calls
the police and reports them as runaways.
when a project is complete, many employers will rent out their migrants
to other companies. They then tell the workers to show up at a different
work site the next day without any further explanation. That again
turns the workers into illegals without their really knowing it.
United Nations and International Labor Organization conventions
against “manpower trafficking”—the intercompany transfer
or “sale” of workers—are ignored.
crackdown hasn’t helped with Israeli unemployment. According
to the Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment was at about 263,000
when the crackdown commenced. Two years later, it has actually risen
to 288,000, despite the departure of some 116,000 migrant workers
from the country.
employers, meanwhile, are just as eager to hire illegal undocumented
migrants at higher than minimum wage, especially in construction
and agriculture. For workers who know that they could be deported
any time if the whim strikes their sponsoring employer, the possibility
of making more money with a boss who has an interest in keeping
them in the country is hard to resist.
are the one group who undoubtedly benefit from the current situation.
When they report a rash of runaways, they can simply petition the
Interior Ministry to award them another batch of permits to bring
in another crop of migrants. Their political clout generally means
they get their way.
do the Interior Ministry and the Immigration Administration so often
appear to work hand-in- glove with the recruiting agencies and large
employers? Corruption is one possible explanation. Shlomo Benizri,
a former labor and social welfare minister, was accused last year
of having taken bribes—including free cleaning services by
two workers from Eastern Europe—from a contractor in return
for permission to keep employing foreign workers and supplying a
job for the contractor’s wife. Several of his former aides
have been investigated too.
NGOs believe the explanation is more overarching, however, and that
tacit acceptance of the migrant worker merry-go-round is a government
quid pro quo for the relatively low levels of state subsidy to business
in Israel. Agricultural subsidies, for example, hover around 10
percent versus 50 percent in Western Europe. Cheap unskilled labor
helps Israel stay competitive.
fact of organizing deportations at the same time as authorizing
the arrival of new migrant workers is a way of achieving two goals
at minimal cost,” the report by the International Federation
for Human Rights and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network
concluded. “First, a frequent rotation of migrant workers guarantees
the docility of the newcomers and ensures social peace, as new migrants
are ignorant of Israeli laws, live in isolation in society and employment,
and have substantial financial debts to be repaid in a relatively
short period. Secondly, it helps in the struggle against inflation
to keep wages down.”
migrants, of course, the “struggle” to shave a few fractions
of a percentage point off Israel’s inflation rate and keep
the land clear of Palestinian day laborers has mainly resulted in
human misery. Swaray, who has seen the African Workers Union dwindle
from around 6,000 members to a handful in just 2 years, now says
his most urgent work is to advocate for the 1,700-some Israeli-born
children of migrants, who face deportation at age 18 to countries
they never knew.
year, then-Interior Minister Avraham Poratz of the liberal Shinui
Party proposed allowing these children—an estimated 650—to
apply for temporary and, later, permanent resident status. Mothers
would be allowed to stay with them in the country until their children
turned 21. But the idea was bottled in a Knesset committee dominated
by unsympathetic right-wingers. A ray of hope appeared early this
year when the new minister, Ophir Pines-Paz, extended until July
a moratorium on deportations of the Israeli-born children and their
mothers, pending an effort to reclaim his authority to decide on
their permanent status.
will happen is unclear. Sigal Rozen, a longtime activist with the
Hotline for Migrant Workers, a support group, cautions that Pines-Paz
may not get his way, despite statements that indicate he’s
received encouragement from Sharon’s office. Making it harder
to say no, however, are the children, acculturated as Israelis,
some of whom have spoken out for their rights. “These children
read Hebrew, read the newspapers, and are the kind of people who
do demonstrations in front of the parliament building,” Rozen
says. “So you can’t just say to them, one year later,
‘No, you can’t stay.’ The more time passes, the more
difficult it will be for the government to change its mind.”
so, one reason will be that the number of these children is so small.
Meanwhile, thousands more of adult migrants continue to live in
fear. To the extent that the government pays attention, its focus
has been to curtail the number of foreign workers brought into the
country—and these moves are likely to make the abuse they suffer
most recent changes of policy award migrant worker permits not to
employers but to the recruiting agencies. The government argues
that this will enable it to regulate the use of permits more effectively.
But advocates for migrant workers fear it will allow the recruiters
to create a cartel to keep wages down and lobby the government more
recent change, effective in May, raises the tax that employers must
pay to retain foreign migrant workers to 20,000 shekels, paid up-front—roughly
the difference in wages between the migrants and native-born Israelis.
The idea was to make it prohibitively expensive for most employers
to bring in migrants. But activists warn that mafia-style recruiters
will inevitably figure out how to keep the pipeline flowing under
the new rules, driving the migrant community further underground.
Human rights organizations are appealing the new laws to the Israeli
groups are working on other fronts as well, pushing for a combination
of better laws and better enforcement of existing labor rules. The
Hotline for Migrant Workers (www. hotline.org) and Kav La’oved
(www.kavlaoved.org), a nonprofit dedicated to defending the rights
of all disadvantaged workers in Israel, offer a series of proposals.
These include informing arriving legal migrants of their rights,
doing away with the “binding” of workers to employers,
enforcing the labor laws, and ending quotas and terroristic raids.
public opinion behind the rights of an unrepresented population
of “temporary” cohabitants is not easy, especially when
the Intifada and high unemployment are giving Israelis plenty to
think about. Last fall the Immigration Administration set the goal
of deporting another 50,000 undocumented migrants in 2005, despite
the lack of evidence that the policy has any effect on employment.
Kemp, who has studied the migrant worker population for some years,
believes that sooner or later, Israeli society will be forced to
change its thinking toward its non-Jewish guests. The demand for
migrants is unlikely to slacken, she says, especially for domestic
workers, whose role will only grow along with Israel’s elderly
population—and for whom there are no limits on permits.
discouraging, Kemp says, is that the mistakes Israel is making today
are the same ones that European societies experiencing labor shortages
made in the 1960s and 1970s. “The classic case was Germany,
which only in the 1970s realized it was a de facto immigrant state,”
Kemp says. Twenty years later, Israel is going through its own cycle
of exploitation and repression. Until it ends, the migrants continue
is an independent journalist and activist based in New York. Photos
by Ilan Spira.