Yellow flyers are breathing fear into many of Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods, as they warn immigrant workers to leave Israel or face the wrath of the deportation police.
“Dear families. Do not let us arrest you … Please go to the Immigration Administration and arrange the date of your flight without delay,” reads one flyer.
Failure to have done so before the 1 September deadline would result in “law enforcement activities and arrests against families”, it warned.
A brief extension of the deadline now gives family members until 10 September to register.
The move has provoked outrage among human rights workers who say the arrest and deportation of women and children is illegal and will tear families apart.
But the Immigration Administration (IA), a body set up in June 2002 and tasked with rounding up and expelling illegal workers, said the government wanted to encourage families “to leave the country with dignity”.
“Dealing with women, little children and babies is very complicated,” IA spokeswoman Orit Friedman said.
“It will be very hard to take these people to prison so we’re trying to get them to voluntarily leave the country with dignity.”
Lat week Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told parliament: “It is not true there are no jobs. There are 300,000. They just need to be vacated for Israelis.”
“Dear families. Do not let us arrest you … Please go to the Immigration Administration and arrange the date of your flight without delay”
Israeli government flyer
Official figures estimate there are 300,000 foreign workers in Israel, of whom 60% are thought to be illegal.
Half are from China, Thailand and the Philippines, 45% are from Eastern Europe, and the rest are from Africa and Latin America.
Most do jobs which Israelis refuse to do, such as work in construction or agriculture, and around a fifth work as carers for the elderly.
Since the deportation police began operating in September 2002, they have deported 17,500 people and “encouraged” another 40,000 to leave, the IA says.
And in the five weeks since the family campaign launched, 550 families have registered to leave out of the estimated 3000 living in Israel.
Despite the 10 September deadline, Friedman says the IA may still extend the registration period.
“After that, we may extend it again or move to stage two: arresting the fathers and forcing them to register the mothers and children,” she said.
“If that doesn’t work, we are going to arrest families.”
Sigal Rosen, director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, said: “People are really terrorised. They want to frighten people into leaving and it is working.”
“When the mother is from Ghana and the father is Filipino, and the kids are born here, they simply don’t know any other country,” added Rami Adut, director of the migrant workers project at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
“When you deport a family like that the children are forced to go with one parent or the other, so it breaks up entire families”
“When you deport a family like that the children are forced to go with one parent or the other, so it breaks up entire families.”
Threats of a crackdown have provoked a slew of outraged editorials in the Israeli press.
“How did a people who virtually invented the concept of labour fairness come to be so exploitative,” the conservative Jerusalem Post said, citing a Biblical command to treat foreign workers with respect.
But even families who have registered with the IA are finding themselves under renewed threat of arrest as they cannot afford to pay their way home.
“They’re now threatening to arrest those who did register but who don’t have the money to pay their way home,” said Rosen.
The trade in foreign workers remains a lucrative business which lines the pockets of many of Israel’s biggest agriculture and construction companies.
Figures published last week by the International Federation for Human Rights and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network show that a Chinese construction worker seeking work in Israel pays between 6000 and 10,000 dollars.
That sum would be divided between a Chinese agency, the Israeli employers or their agency, the Israeli government (for visa fees) and the travel company.