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Unwelcome: African migrants hit by new tax in Israel

Eritrean migrants protest for their rights in Tel Aviv, Israel on 11 July 2011 [Physicians for Human Rights/Flickr]
Eritrean migrants protest for their rights in Tel Aviv, Israel on 11 July 2011 [Physicians for Human Rights/Flickr]

Nine years ago, Teklit Michael fled Eritrea to avoid military conscription, survived a perilous journey across the Sinai Peninsula and sought asylum in Israel.

The 29-year-old Eritrean community organiser now works as a cook at a restaurant in south Tel Aviv – alone, without family and in legal limbo, awaiting a response to his asylum request.

Since May, Michael’s life has faced another challenge with new tax rules that force his employer to put part of his salary in a fund which he can access only if he leaves Israel.

He believes the aim of the new legislation, which applies only to African migrants and asylum seekers, is clear.

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“They want us to leave the country,” said Michael, who left his homeland rather than serve in an army accused by human rights groups of treating conscripts brutally and forcing them to serve indefinitely. “They want to break our spirit.”

The Interior Ministry says the new rules are intended to benefit the migrants and asylum seekers, whom the government refers to as illegal infiltrators.

“[It provides] a sum of money that the person will have when he leaves,” said Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the ministry’s population, immigration and border authority.

Israel has granted asylum to fewer than one per cent of those who have applied and has a years-long backlog of applicants.

“CALCULATED PLAN”

Under the new law, employers must deduct 20 per cent of the wages of Eritrean and Sudanese employees who entered Israel illegally from Egypt and have temporary visas.

The sum is then deposited in a fund, alongside an employer-paid tax of 16 per cent, and remains there until the worker leaves the country.

“[It’s] a very calculated plan to make sure that people understand they are not welcome,” said Ruvi Ziegler, associate professor in international refugee law at the University of Reading and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

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Large numbers of Africans, the vast majority from Eritrea and Sudan, began entering Israel illegally from Egypt in the mid-2000s. Many said they fled war and persecution as well as economic hardship but Israel treats them as economic migrants.

Israel has also offered many financial compensation if they agree to move to a third country in Africa – usually Rwanda or Uganda.

Aid workers say that since the new law was implemented, there has been an increase in reports of asylum seekers being fired from jobs because of the tax.

No government figures are available on this, but the aid workers say some migrants are recording only some of the hours they work, and are being paid on the side for the rest, to reduce the taxes paid by both the employer and employee.

Lemlem, an Eritrean who declined to give her full name, said she had lost her job in a clothes store in Tel Aviv because her employer did not want to pay the increased tax.

The 29-year-old has a six-year-old daughter and her husband is unemployed. She does not know how she will pay her 1,800-shekel ($515) monthly rent.

“Eritrean people are scared,” she said.

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