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The lost children of Israel's foreign workers

Most of the children born to foreign workers in Israel are never granted permanent residency or Israeli nationality and feel rejected by Israeli society.

Five thousand meals were prepared for a multicultural food, music and art fair held June 4 at the Bascula Club in Tel Aviv. The event was organized by Israeli Children, an organization working to legalize the status of children of foreign workers in Israel. The food stalls attested to the countries of origin of the immigrants, including the Philippines, Sudan (mostly Darfur), South Sudan, Eritrea, India and Colombia. 

The Eritrean stall offered injera, a type of flat sour bread, along with assorted other dishes. The Colombian kitchen served frijoles, a black bean dish, and empanadas made with corn flour. An especially long line stretched from the Philippine stall, which offered tofu-filled steamed rolls. The atmosphere was lively with stalls selling ethnic arts, craft workshops and traditional music and dance performances, including a children’s chorus. 

The thousands of meals were soon devoured by a crowd of Israelis who surprised the organizers by their large turnout. They came to celebrate the ethnic diversity that now characterizes Tel Aviv, rather than doing what residents usually do, which is to ignore the diversity at best or rage about it at worst.

Behind the Colombian stall stood Evelin Diaz, along with her mother and aunt. Diaz arrived in Israel at the age of eight in 2003. “The event surprised me,” she told Al-Monitor. “I was really excited. I met a ton of people who came to support [us], and it’s very different from what we usually experience.” 

An example of what she might expect to experience, she said, happened when she posted a request on Facebook to borrow hot plates for the event. “I tried to formulate the request gently so there wouldn’t be hurtful remarks,” she said. “But of course, there were many responses hoping that I would be raped by Sudanese.” Indeed, the fun, colorful and delicious event concealed a difficult reality. 

“Even in the best cases, the rare cases where these children receive legal status, they continue to suffer,” said Rotem Ilan, founder of Israeli Children and director of the Immigration and Status Unit at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “Recently two girls who were born in Israel to foreign workers from Nigeria, girls who have permanent status, went to a scouts activity. On the way, they were accosted with ‘Go back to Africa.’ If we thought that the end was getting children legal status, it’s not. There’s still a long road ahead.”

The event was essentially organized to bring Israelis closer to the community of foreign workers, including some asylum seekers. Their children are in an even worse situation, as Israel does not recognize them at all, depriving them of any civil status.

“By means of multicultural food and international culture, we wanted to create a direct encounter between Israelis and foreigners, which mostly just doesn’t happen,” Ilan said. According to her, public sentiment toward anyone considered “foreign” is so aggressive and intolerant that even the lucky few who receive legal status in Israel, usually as residents, find it hard to lead a normal life.

Diaz related that the apartment she currently lives in is her 17th since arriving in Israel 13 years ago. “The lack of belonging is so constant,” she said. “There are struggles to avoid deportation and to escape the immigration police, [moving from] apartment to apartment, especially after they deported my sister. The fear was so tangible then, it made it hard to feel we belonged.” 

Some 6,000 children without legal status live in Israel, according to estimates by Israeli Children and other associations and based on the number of foreigners receiving medical care. The state comptroller has admitted that there is no official count. The vast majority are the children of asylum seekers who illegally entered Israel and from whom Israel insists on withholding civil status. This practice stands in contrast to the approach of many Western nations that feel a sense of global responsibility for the children of the world, many of whom have lost their homes and citizenship due to recent wars. Although these children are entitled to free education and medical care in Israel, they have no other rights.

Following a government resolution in 2010, in a one-time decree, 700 children with parents residing illegally in Israel who had entered the country legally as foreign workers, tourists or volunteers received a legal status subject to strict criteria. This exceptional measure granted their families temporary legal status. Diaz was among these children, and in 2012, she received permanent residency. It is thanks to that resolution that her mother and six-year-old brother were able to gain temporary residency in Israel. Her older sister, now 27, was deported to Colombia seven years ago. 

According to Ilan, the children of asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally are sometimes sent to detention facilities with their parents, against international conventions. The Population, Immigration and Border Authority told Al-Monitor, “The detention of minors with their parents is not routine and occurs rarely, when it is unavoidable. Families who stay illegally in Israel are asked many times to leave independently. Whoever doesn’t respect the laws of the nation risks his and his family’s detention. In cases where there is no adult who could take responsibility for a minor, you can’t expect that we would leave the minor on his own.” 

Since the 2010 resolution, a new generation of children of foreign workers has emerged that has no status at all. “The problem is that there’s no path to citizenship in Israel,” said Ilan. “Not for parents and not for children. That’s unusual compared to the regulations of the European Union. A foreign worker could work as a home health aide for 20 years here, and his children are born here and are Israelis in every respect. When the Israeli the worker cares for dies, he and his children would have absolutely no rights, just like a worker who arrived here today.”

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority responded, “Three different resolutions were made, in 2005, 2006 and 2010, to deal with the status of children of illegal migrants. The claim that there is no path to settle their status is incorrect and misleading. Like in Western nations, the decisions were meant to solve the issue on a one-time basis and not permanently. Whoever hasn’t gained legal status apparently didn’t meet the criteria, or the children were born after the decision, and they continued to make their own [way].”

“I hope they don't deport the children we are fighting for,” said Diaz simply. “As someone who was like that, it’s hard to see them. It’s also hard to see those whose fathers are sent to the Holot detention center. Some of them have lived here from a very early age. A very large part were born here, and it’s a terrible feeling.”

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