High Court to Far-Right Gov’t: Refund Deposits to Asylum Seekers

The High Court of Justice struck down on Thursday, April 23, the 2017 “Deposit Law” requiring employers to deduct 20% from the salaries of refugees and asylum seekers and deposit these funds in a special personalized account that they can only access if and when they leave the country. The justices deemed the law illegal and said that, while providing economic incentives is a legitimate immigration policy, stripping asylum seekers of a fifth of their salaries constitutes “clear, tangible and significant damage to the property rights of workers,” whose salaries are already meager.

Mass demonstration of refugees, asylum seekers and Israelis against the "Deposit Law, June 2017"

Mass demonstration of refugees, asylum seekers and Israelis against the “Deposit Law, June 2017” (Photo: ASSAF)

In a 6-1 vote, with Justice Noam Sohlberg dissenting, the High Court declared the part of the law requiring the automatic withholding of 20% of migrant employees’ salaries by the state unconstitutional as, according to the law’s sponsors and the Interior Ministry, the purpose of the law was to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country by making their day-to-day lives more difficult. Thus, the court ruled, that any previously collected funds garnered directly from their salaries must be immediately returned to the roughly 36,000 African asylum seekers migrants.

However, in its decision, the High Court upheld the state’s collection from employers and closed deposit of an additional 16% of the salary for pension and other social benefits. These funds are to released to the individual for whom they were paid by the employer when he or she leaves the country.

Satisfaction but Also Concern on the Left

Kav LaOved, a workers’ rights organization, and Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic filed the petition against the “Deposit Law” before the High Court in March 2017. Five other organizations also joined the petition: ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the African Refugee Development Center, and Physicians for Human Rights. Asylum seekers’ and human rights groups issued a joint statement saying that the Deposit Law had “been born in sin and [its purpose had been] to expel people who sought refuge from persecution… and allowed for the committing of daily theft.” To add insult to injury, the “Deposit Law” had exempted the Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, which oversaw the deposit accounts, from sending regular reports or summaries about the current status of the accounts to the workers, leaving much room for improprieties. Nor did the Law of Oversight of Financial Services in Israel apply to the monies on deposit with the bank. The statement issued by the petitioners following the High Court ruling concluded: “This ruling gives hope… and we are happy for all asylum seekers, who will receive their money back, but even more, the recognition that they have been wronged.”

According to Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) chair of the Welfare and Labor Affairs Committee in the Knesset, “It is a wonderful victory for human rights and workers’ rights activists in the eve of May Day. It is a shame that the far-right government behaves this way with money that belongs to hard-working people who struggle to make ends meet. The racist government should let asylum seekers use this money immediately and unconditionally and we should be reminded that these funds exist according to a law, which deliberately makes asylum seekers poorer and more vulnerable. Today the rule have been given great strength to continue to work and fight for the economic and social rights of asylum seekers and all exploited workers in Israel.”

However, despite their satisfaction with the court’s decision, human rights groups say that the sums to be returned in many cases will not be sufficient to cover more than a few months rent for many migrant families, because the vast majority of asylum seekers have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic and, unlike Israeli citizens and permanent residents, migrants receive no unemployment benefits or national insurance to fall back on.

Anger and Further Incitement against the Court by the Far-Right

Far-right and racist lawmakers from the religious and far-right Yamina party fumed at the High Court of Justice for striking down the “Deposit Law” and renewed their calls from for a curtailment of the judiciary’s powers in Israel. “Unbelievable. The High Court again and again castrates every tool the state tries to use to enforce its immigration policies and safeguard the Jewish majority in the Jewish state,” Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted.

Likud MKs Gideon Sa’ar, May Golan and Yoav Kisch announced that they have submitted a bill to override the court’s ruling. In a May 2018 hearing about the legislation which highlighted its lax enforcement and widespread abuse, MK Kisch said “After the failure to expel infiltrators, this law is the only legal tool we have today to encourage infiltrators to leave voluntarily.”