Outrunning a Catastrophe, Together: Assisting asylum seekers in Israel during the Coronavirus Crisis

The first confirmed Covid-19 patient in Israel was diagnosed three months ago on February 21st, 2020. Less than a month later, on March 14th, a countrywide lockdown was announced, which included a total shutdown of all restaurants and hotels as well as most other work places. Within a month from the lockdown, over a million people were fired or put on unpaid leave, increasing Israel’s unemployment rate to a staggering 27.4%.

Asylum seeker children cross the street in south Tel Aviv, March 17, 2020. (Oren Ziv)

The first confirmed Covid-19 patient in Israel was diagnosed three months ago on February 21st, 2020. Less than a month later, on March 14th, a countrywide lockdown was announced, which included a total shutdown of all restaurants and hotels as well as most other work places. Within a month from the lockdown, over a million people were fired or put on unpaid leave, increasing Israel’s unemployment rate to a staggering 27.4%.

Among those left without an income, the situation was no less than catastrophic, depending on their prior circumstances. 29,000 asylum seekers live in Israel (71% of them are Eritrean, 20% Sudanese, and the rest are different nationalities). Most of them have been in the country for ten or fifteen years, but the decisions in their asylum cases are still pending, leaving them in a never-ending limbo, holding nothing but temporary renewable visas, which entitle them to no social benefits, including unemployment payments. Close to 80% of the community members worked in the restaurant and hotel industries, which were completely shut down, and were laid off on the first few days of the lockdown. These people were barely keeping their head above water before the crisis; now, they were starting to drown.

This is the reality that I, as the director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, as well as my colleagues at other NGOs protecting the rights of refugees in Israel, woke up to on March 15th – we knew our beneficiaries were heading towards a crisis, that rent payments were due within two weeks, and that we must try to stop the disaster heading our way.

Together, we approached the matter on three levels: pushing for immediate policy changes that would force the government to take responsibility for the crisis; providing information and counseling to the community regarding all aspects of life – from the requirements of the new health regulations, to the way to renew their visa when government offices are closed, to the services available to victims of domestic violence; and delivering immediate direct assistance through food vouchers and other basic needs to the most vulnerable families. By maintaining constant communication and coordination between the different organizations, each with our own strengths and expertise, we managed to act effectively on all three levels simultaneously.

On the policy level, our advocacy focused on four key issues: full health treatment for anyone infected by Covid-19, regardless of their legal status or if they had health insurance; release of all deposit funds (funds taken from asylum seekers under the 2017 Deposit Law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court of Israel in April 2020 following a petition by refugee rights NGOs); assistance to the most vulnerable members of the community (homeless individuals, survivors of human trafficking, etc.); and release of immigration detainees.

Our advocacy took many forms. We met with government officials from various offices, participated in the governmental roundtable on individuals without legal status during the Coronavirus crisis; raised our demands with numerous members of parliament, and initiated media coverage of these topics. We also utilized legal proceedings to complement our advocacy endeavors, most notably going through the judicial system to release detainees from immigration detention. In my case, the Hotline had the capacity to adapt our advocacy work so quickly due to our relationships with long-term supporters like Heinrich Boell Stiftung, which allow us to focus on the most pressing needs and respond in real-time to drastic changes like those happening daily since March 15th.

As we worked to provide counseling and information, the Coronavirus restrictions necessitated swift changes be made to the NGOs’ modus operandi. Rather than our typical face-to-face operations, we began to provide assistance via phone, WhatsApp, and even Facebook. Thanks to these near-instant changes, my colleagues and I were able to provide hundreds of people each day with counseling, advice, and information about their rights during this stressful period.

In the realm of direct services, my NGO colleagues benefited from the goodwill of many supporters in and outside of Israel. Hundreds of volunteers joined our cause to donate food, supplies, and funds, as well as to make physical deliveries. With their help, several NGOs and municipal bodies provided food and diapers to approximately 4,000 asylum-seeking individuals facing food insecurity and lack of basic necessities, many of whom were single mothers with children. All the while, we continued our efforts pushing the government to take full responsibility for the community.

Beyond the work carried out by traditional NGOs, Israel’s refugee community itself sprung into action to defend and fill its own needs. The refugee community is already extraordinarily organized, with democratically-elected leaders who act as liaisons between the community and Israeli society. In response to this crisis, the community founded an additional leadership committee, much like a governmental task force, that specifically responded to new needs resulting from the Coronavirus health and economic crises. Alongside the NGOs, these refugee leaders evaluated the community’s most dire needs, gave out food packages, participated in meetings with government officials, were featured in the media, and worked to achieve communal goals. They also assisted the NGOs in communicating directly with the community, providing information and relaying feedback, to ensure that the NGOs were constantly updated regarding the true needs on the ground. As the number of infected individuals in the asylum seeking community started to increase on June 2020, those leaders served as a mediator between the health authorities, the NGOs and the community, as well as assisted the needs of those sent to quarantine or forced to leave their jobs when some of the schools which most of the asylum seeker children attend were closed down due to infections.

It is still too soon to know what the future holds for asylum seekers in Israel. Despite the past months’ many achievements, most of the community remains unemployed, and the concern regarding the recent increase in the number of confirmed patients is grave. It would be foolhardy to claim that our actions will solve every problem facing asylum seekers in Israel, but by working hand in hand with our partners and each employing our own strengths for the benefit of the community, we can rest assured we are doing everything in our power to fight for the future they deserve, together.