Before he was summoned to Holot, Israel’s open-air detention center for asylum-seekers, Gebremeskel Tsehaya, known as Gary, worked as a cook frying falafel and chopping salad at a small restaurant in Tel Aviv. Because Gary is a single Eritrean man, Israel’s government says he will soon face a choice: accept a plane ticket out of the country or go to prison. African asylum-seekers are a crucial source of labor in the kitchens of nearly every Tel Aviv eatery, and indignant restaurant owners have waged a battle with the government over its intensifying campaign to deport them.
For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly discussed his intentions to expel the roughly 40,000 African migrants currently living in Israel — a population comprised of 27,500 Eritreans, 7,900 Sudanese and 2,600 citizens of other African countries, according to Israel’s Interior Ministry. But in January, the ministry advanced its plan to deport 20,000 of the population by 2020, starting this April. Migrants began receiving early February notices proclaiming they will face indefinite imprisonment if they do not self-deport within 60 days.
Israel’s Restaurants and Bars Association said its 800-member businesses employ around 10,000 African migrant workers washing dishes, cleaning and cooking the city’s tasty fare — from Thai food to Israel’s characteristic blend of European and Mediterranean cuisine. With Israelis unwilling to fill such jobs, restaurant owners have been lobbying the government in recent months against deportation, advocating instead that they be granted residency or another more permanent status. “Without them, we can't run our businesses, simple as that,” Shai Berman, the director of the association, told Al-Monitor. “If the chef doesn't come to work, the restaurant can stay open. But if no one is doing the dishes, the work will stop.”
Israel is a signatory to the International Refugee Convention of 1951 and effectively recognizes the possible danger of ending Sudanese and Eritrean migrants back to their homelands, but in most of the cases, it refuses to grant refugee status for that reason alone. As of the end of 2017, according to data provided to Al-Monitor by the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority, 15,613 people had submitted requests for asylum. Just 11 have been granted refugee status, a number Israeli organization African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) cites as one of the lowest in the Western world.
Netanyahu argued that the migrants centered largely in south Tel Aviv are in Israel illegally and arrived for economic reasons, pointing to security and safety burdens posed by this population. The government considers them “infiltrators” — a term originating in Israel’s 1954 law intending to prevent entry of Palestinian refugees.
The primary targets of deportation, said the Population and Immigration Authority, are single men who have failed to apply for asylum by January of this year or who have had applications rejected. For now, women, children, fathers and migrants with pending asylum applications will be spared. Pending applications amount to 7,437, according to data provided by the authority, and many more have not succeeded in submitting requests. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, cites reasons for this as “lack of information, distrust in the asylum system and the fact that asylum-seeker status does not provide greater protection than what ‘infiltrators’ already enjoy,” like welfare services or exemption from mandatory detention.
Restaurant owners decry that they have been unfairly squeezed by economic levies designed to make the lives of both African migrants and their employers more burdensome. The largest blow, Berman explained, was when the High Court of Justice ruled in September that employers must pay a 20% tax on African migrant wages, as they must for other short-term foreign laborers like Filipino caretakers or Thai agricultural laborers. In a legal dispute with the state, restaurant owners had petitioned that migrants be considered Israeli residents.
In May, employers also became required to deposit 16% of African migrants’ pay into a closed account only to be given to the worker when he or she departs Israel. The workers themselves must deposit another 20% of their paycheck into this fund, significantly slashing their net pay.
“What we are saying [to the Knesset] is that the state cannot deport them and we, as the restaurant owners, are the people that fight with the asylum-seekers on our back,” said Berman. “This is [the Knesset’s] problem, not ours.”
Micha Sol, the owner of Tel Aviv restaurant Yula, suggested that he, like other restaurant owners, had no choice but to avoid paying some taxes required to employ his four Eritrean workers. “These laws have made me a criminal,” Sol told Al-Monitor. “Only new immigrants are willing to do this kind of hard work, like in other Western countries. There’s no solution in the Israeli market because we have almost no natural immigration.”
Berman said Israeli reluctance to take the jobs isn’t about wages, noting restaurant owners often pay well over Israel’s minimum wage to dishwashers. Palestinians used to work such jobs, but few have been granted permits after a wave of suicide bombings during the second intifada in the early 2000s shattered already strained social and economic ties between Israelis and Palestinians.
Working in a restaurant requires overnight permits, said Berman, for which Palestinians would have to rent rooms in the city. “There is still fear involved,” Berman said. Now the government is promising 1,500 such Palestinian permits to replace departing African migrants. “It’s a start,” said Berman. “But not a solution; 1,500 jobs don’t even begin to fill 10,000.”
Joseph Zeira, an economics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the president of the Israeli Economics Association, argued in 2015 that African workers should be given five-year work permits and resettled in various locations around Israel until their asylum requests are processed. But now, “We’ve reached the moment of truth,” he told Al-Monitor. “They are being deported.”
He stands by his recommendation, but notes the policy’s popularity in the Israeli public. “A lot of people support deportation because there’s no clear alternative,” he said. “So we need to discuss the alternatives.”
Meanwhile, Gary said that he intends to choose prison. If he were to take the flight and the $3,500 stipend from Israel, reports widely speculate he would be sent to Rwanda. Deportation notices say he will be taken to “a safe third country … that has developed tremendously in the last decade and absorbs thousands of immigrants.”
The ARDC claims, however, that already deported migrants faced significant hardships upon arriving in their new countries in Africa, including “arbitrary arrest, demands for bribes or problems accessing the asylum process.” In a letter to Netanyahu, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS human rights groups stressed that some migrants leaving Israel drowned at sea en route to Europe or were tortured by traffickers.
Though protests against deportation have erupted within Israel and abroad, Berman is discouraged at the limited impact the restaurant workers have had. Likewise, Gary’s boss and restaurant owner laments the looming decision facing his employee. “It makes me ashamed to be Israeli,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t want to go back to the way I came,” sighed Gary, noting many of his friends feel the same way. He is 30 and arrived in Israel in 2011 with dreams of leaving life under an oppressive regime and getting an education. “It’s a tough decision to stay in prison, but it’s worth it in order to save your life.”