An Effective Employment Policy?

Unemployment is one of the central challenges facting asylum seekers and refugees. The European Union regulations determine that states must allow asylum seekers to work after nine months from the day of applying for refugee status, and up until then the state must provide him/her with the necessary means for survival - including housing and healthcare. According to the regulations, states cannot forbid asylum seekers from working, but do retain the authority to impose qualifications on employment opportunities (i.e. branches of employment and geographical location), in accordance with its socio-economic circumstances. 

The UN Refugee Convention explains that any signatory state must treat refugees as it treats its own citizens, and that labor laws should be applied to worker-employee relations, wages, social security and so on. In Israel, asylum seekers are referred to under the ambiguous category of “Persons in a Refugee-Like Situation”. This category does not clearly lay out the rights that they possess, apart from the commitment not to return them to their country of origin. In this manner, the state may avoid granting asylum seekers basic rights. This loophole is exploited by blocking the access of asylum seekers to the labor market, and by not providing them with alternative economic support.

Adhering to such a challenging, vague and dynamic policy, as that which is customary in Israel, creates confusion among employers and asylum seekers alike. In practice, most asylum seekers do end up finding some form of employment in order to feed and house themselves. From here it is a short road to exploitation by employers who benefit from the vague policy. This leads to an expansion in black market employment and commerce, enlarged debts for hospitals, and an increased burden for the neighborhoods of South Tel-Aviv. 

It is obvious that the Israeli government is well aware of the negative consequences that its policy bears for Israeli society, which begs the question: why do efforts continue to advance and augment this policy? 

The state of Israel proactively tried to stop the flow of asylum seekers by erecting a separation fence on its border with Egypt. This succeeded in stopping the flow of migration. However, the state continues to maintain that the fence alone is not sufficient to deter more potential asylum seekers, and therefore continues - as a measure of deterrence - to aggravate the conditions of employment and the lives of the asylum seekers who have been granted residence permits. In addition, policymakers claim that imposing limitations on integration within the job market, neutralizing the economic incentives and constraining movement and housing freedom by confining asylum seekers already living in Israeli to closed or semi-closed facilities, will lead to their eventual voluntary repatriation.

Are all these means for deterring new potential asylum seekers truly necessary? Are the restrictions on employment really resulting in the emigration of asylum seekers? Could this policy truly alleviate the hardships experienced in South Tel-Aviv neighborhoods? It is very doubtful. Asylum seekers rarely have a variety of options to choose from. Arriving at Israel is mostly the product of opportunity and chance, and that is especially true in cases where escaping the country is an immediate and crucial need. In such cases, the determining question is not “where do I want to go”, but rather “where can I safely go”. The answer lies in possibilities across the border. Pull factors associated with the existence of a community and a family from the state of origin, to economic opportunities and the policies towards asylum seekers are negligible in such acute cases. Usually it is the person who smuggles asylum seekers out of their country of origin that determines where they will be sent, and certainly not the conditions in the state itself. 

The asylum seekers from Sudan were forced to urgently flee following conflict, civil war and persecution. Asylum seekers from Eritrea fled a dictatorial regime, thereby becoming dependent on the smugglers who determined their route of escape. They arrived at Israel despite Israel's unfavorable refuge policy, since it was the only western state that committed to providing them with protection, whose border crossings were open, and that was accessible via land (and is less dangerous than the ocean pathways to Europe). Once the border was sealed, the movement of asylum seekers ceased almost entirely. The attempt to justify the deterioration in conditions for asylum seekers by pointing to the need to prevent the future arrival of additional asylum seekers is contradicted by the fact that the flow of asylum seekers has practically ceased and that the major consideration of most asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan is the accessibility of a safe harbor and not the conditions therein.

And what about the government's goal to increase the number of asylum seekers who will willingly return to their country of origin? First, we shall note that the policy of willful return, coupled with positive and negative incentives, exists also in other countries but is limited to those asylum seekers whose request was denied and who can be returned to their home country, and certainly not to those in danger and who cannot be returned according to international law.

One should assume that a hostile public attitude, combined with limitations on movement, housing and work, make it very difficult for asylum seekers. However, the question is what alternative are they facing? Unlike in Europe and the United States, asylum seekers in Israel have no option to move to another country in search of a better life. The option of going back to their country entails substantial danger to their lives. Given that the alternative offered to them is worse than the current one, the benefit from financial incentives is lower than the costs of the risk. It is for this reason that the probability of the government achieving its objective is unlikely. Since the policy of detaining asylum seekers in the Holot detention facility was introduced, 5,000 (mainly Sudanese) asylum seekers left Israel. The number of Eritrean asylums seekers who elected to leave was marginal even though this is the larger group of the two in Israel. The decision to leave is certainly not the result of having to engage in illegal employment, under minimal conditions and without basic rights. The employment policy of the government towards asylum seekers has no effect whatsoever on their motivation to participate, by choice or not, in programs designed for “voluntary return”.

The possible conclusions are that the current employment policy does not and will not achieve its desired outcomes (minimizing the number of asylum seekers in Israel), or that it was redundant to begin with (in deterring potential new asylum seekers). The population of asylum seekers - numbering several tens of thousands - will likely continue to remain in Israel for the coming years, and the negative implications of the current policy towards them, which overlooks the importance of proper integration into the labor market, and leaves them at the mercy of an unregulated labor market, will only grow. A responsible government must rid itself of such policy.

The policy of promoting employment in industries that Israelis are not interested in working in, while maintaining an effective geographical dispersion, would lower the burden on Tel-Aviv Jaffa and the residents of its southern neighborhoods. Integrating asylum seekers in fields of employment that lack workers, such as agriculture or the hotel industry, would decrease the need for importing migrant laborers and minimize the black market economy. Asylum seekers would benefit from reasonable working conditions under government supervision, and the income tax they would pay would increase the state budget (rather than depleting it through an ongoing police pursuit of people whose sole crime is their pursuit of a free life).

Why do decision makers maintain policies that are so ineffective? Could their motivation be political? Nationalist? Racist? One may hope of course that they merely fail to recognize the facts. If the government is truly interested in adequately dealing with the socio-economic implications of asylum seekers residing in Israel, it should know that the solution lies just in front of it.  

Written by:

Dr. Dvora Blum, Manager of the Institute for Immigration and Social Integration at the Ruppin Academic Center

Dr. Oshrat Hochman, lecturer and researcher at the Ruppin Academic Center


The article is based on the research of Mali Raif with Dvora Blum and Oshrat Hochman “Asylum Seekers in Israel - Employment Policy and its Implications”, 2014. The full research appears on the Ruppin Academic Center's Institute for Immigration and Social Integration