General information regarding migrant workers in Israel; actions of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel on the matter of the health rights of migrant workers, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking
Beginning in the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s, tens of thousands of migrant workers arrived in Israel. This was as a result of the closure policy in the occupied territories introduced by the state which made it very difficult for Palestinian workers to enter Israel. The government responded to the demands of employers by allowing the greater entry of migrant workers, particularly in the sectors of agriculture and building.
Because the permit is issued for employers and not for the workers, laborers who left their employers for whatever reasons (death of the employer, exploitation of the worker, salary disagreements, etc.) these persons automatically lost their permits to be in the country.
In addition to workers with permits, a large number of migrant workers entered the country's borders with no permit whatever, mostly from countries where it is not possible to obtain a permit to work in Israel. i.e. East Africa, West Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), in the year 2000, there were 240,000 migrant workers in Israel; some with, others without legal permits; the correct figures are probably much higher. In 2003, the CBS estimated that of 190,000 migrant workers, some 85,000 entered with working permits.
The number of victims of human trafficking is also not verified, but assumed to be several thousand women, mostly from former eastern bloc countries (recently, there has been an increasing number of women from the Caucasus). Between 2000 and 2002, more than 1,200 women were deported following arrest for prostitution. A few dozen women are in the witness protection program against human trafficking and they are eligible for a special shelter that offers protection and a number of services. The health care rights of these women are protected by a court order that resulted from a case brought by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel together with the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
In 2003, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel initiated an experimental project whose purpose was outreach to the victims of human trafficking with the goal of improving their freedom of access to health services while they were still at the brothels. Russian speaking volunteers attempt to enter the brothels and relay information regarding the available health care.
In the last few years, more women have sought shelter. UN refugee workers examine the requests of these women, together with the advisory committee of the Interior Ministry.
The number of persons seeking asylum in recent years is, apparently, more than 1000 and includes those who received temporary special status pending resolution of the conflicts in their homelands. Reliable information regarding the numbers of persons involved is not available from UN representatives or from the Interior Ministry. Asylum Seekers are entitled to protection from the state of Israel under international law. In Israel, these refugees have recently received the right to work permits but they do not receive medical treatment or health care services. Even the terminally ill and victims of torture are not entitled to the most basic health services.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel works on many fronts for the rights of migrant workers, seekers of political asylum and victims of sexual trafficking. On the most basic level, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel opened, in 1998, a clinic operated by volunteers to provide primary care to migrant workers.
At the same time, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel offers treatment to migrants, and endeavors to assist with any request for medical aid, whether directly with the treatment or by assisting with payment for care, to prevent deportation of the chronically ill to home countries where they cannot receive care or are at risk of inhuman treatment or at risk of death, by representing them in claims against private insurance companies, by supporting seekers of political asylum, and a variety of other kinds of assistance. This advocacy action typifies our contacts with insurance companies, health funds, hospitals, government ministries and press communications in the legal aid sector. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel relies upon assistance from the Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Tel Aviv Faculty of Law, especially in representing documented workers against the private insurance companies and on issue of refugees’ rights. Dozens of legal migrant workers struggling for their legal rights are represented each year, along with hundreds of requests for information regarding rights and health services.
The types of complaints handled in 2003 included - complaints of legal migrant workers that insurance companies don't pay for essential services, legal representation for AIDS patients, illegal Ethiopian immigrants who are contesting their deportation on the grounds of serious threats to their lives in Ethiopia, legal assistance in obtaining aid for chronically ill children and seeking permission to stay in Israel, etc. Most of the legal activities are carried out in cooperation with the free clinic for legal assistance at Tel Aviv University. The project has no budget for legal activities and this sometimes causes us to refrain from involvement.
The first two areas, individual and legal assistance clinic, is a platform for the third: the essential care, whose goal is long term social change in the manner in which the state public health care services relate to migrant workers.
In principle, the success of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel until now to increase awareness regarding health rights of these groups has been relatively marginal in terms of increasing public dialogue. The activities have succeeded in improving access of three groups to better health service: children of migrant workers, legal migrant workers and the witness program for victims of sexual exploitation.