JERUSALEM, September 1 (JMCC) – Entering the Israeli Ministry of Interior in recent days, one could easily have mistaken it for a nursery -- the shouts, cries and laughter of children can be heard from two stories below.
Their anxious parents wait in line holding documents that they hope will allow their children to remain in the country.
Nearly 400 migrant worker families in Israel
whose children's residency
status has not been legalized could face deportation
in weeks. Wednesday is the deadline for parents to register.
Six-and-a-half-year-old Elias runs around his tired parents, flashing this reporter a grin before hopping off to run the wrong way up the escalator. His name has been changed here, as his parents fear that talking to the press may affect his application.
Elias’ mother and father came to Israel from Nigeria and have been working here for over seven years. Tired and frustrated, his mother holds the documents that will soon determine whether they can remain in the country.
Elias has a severe medical condition, and without the quality treatment of Israel’s medical institutions, his life could be at risk.
“I am nervous,” she tells me. “Elias is Israeli, he goes to school here, and he only speaks Hebrew and a little English. This is our life.”
Following a crackdown on immigration headed by Interior Minister Eli Yishai begun over a year ago, an estimated 1,200 children of migrant workers were threatened with expulsion from Israel.
After pressure from dissenters, including president Shimon Peres
and defense minister Ehud Barak
, the government decided to allow children who meet a certain set of stringent criteria to remain. It is estimated that approximately 800 children will match the criteria. It is these hopeful families who have been presenting themselves to the ministry of interior.
Nevertheless, the process is long and stressful. Elias’ mother says this is she and her husband’s second visit to the ministry. “We have been waiting since eight in the morning,” she says wearily. It is now four in the afternoon.
Application, however, is no guarantee of residency.
Noa Kaufman of the organization Israeli Children, explains that a child must be over five years old and be registered for school, he or she must speak fluent Hebrew (“they test the children here,” she adds), have all required documentation and have lived in the country continuously for five years.
“If a family is successful, the whole family gets residency until the child is 18,” says Kaufman. But an estimated 400 children will not be eligible and could be deported within weeks.
The problems are mainly bureaucratic, Noa explains. In many cases families do not have the time, money or ability to gather the required documents.
Rotem Elan, director of Israeli Children was at the interior ministry to support one mother whose application may be denied because of a query over her marriage certificate with her now estranged husband.
“She is from the Philippines [and] her husband was from Thailand, but they have not been in contact for years,” explains Elan. After a lengthy and expensive process to get the certificate verified in Israel, she was told she must travel to Thailand to get approval from the Thai embassy. And so, says Elan, “if you want to be legal you have to fly out to this country, but you cannot fly because you are considered illegal in Israel.”
The rule that a child must have lived here for five years continuously is also stringent, say many. Noa says she knows of a family who may not qualify because they went to Egypt for two days.
REJECTION & EXPULSION
Families also take a great risk in presenting themselves at the ministry of interior.
Once they show themselves, explains volunteer Rami Gudovitch, their details are taken and biometric information recorded. While previously they might have simply changed addresses to evade immigration services, now any policeman who stops them in the street can know immediately if the family has a deportation order against them.
“In the first two weeks especially, I saw people here crying and anxious,” says Kaufman. “It is a big risk to show yourself.” One day before the deadline, only an estimated 600 of the 800 families who are eligible have come to register.
Rights workers maintain that this problem has come about as a result of a discriminatory and ambiguous immigration policy for non-Jews.
“If you have a relationship here, you may have your visa revoked, and if you have a child, you and your family automatically become illegal,” says Elan. “The majority of migrant workers lose their work visa before it has run out.”
These rules, she says, put unrealistic expectations on migrant workers. “You can’t treat people like simple work machines,” one volunteer says.
“This is a natural process of human life,” says Elias’ father.
Worse, lax laws for private companies who rely on manual labor allow other companies to make huge commission by hiring new immigrants from abroad. Rotem says these “headhunter companies” charge $10,000 to $30,000 for each new laborer.
Public support against the deportation of the remaining children has been gathering, says Kaufman, “to the extent that I honestly believe that these last 400 children will not be deported.”
“If we have the room and territory to allow 800 children to stay,” says Elan, “we can do it for 400 more.”
Defense minister Ehud Barak has weighed in on the issue, saying, The decision to grant 800 children of migrant workers legal status is just and worthy, but the decision to arrest and deport 400 children from Israel is arbitrary.”
Neverthless, addressing the fate of the remaining children is “like putting a bandage on an open wound,” says Elan. She and other rights workers say what is needed is a comprehensive change in Israeli policy.
“We say stop deportation and create a clear humanitarian law for future migrants who may come to this country,” says Kaufman.