Prompting renewed calls from lawmakers for a curtailment of its powers, the High Court of Justice on Thursday struck down a 2017 law requiring employers to deposit 20 percent of asylum seekers’ salaries into a special fund that they can only access if 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 does “clear, tangible and significant damage to the property rights of workers,” whose salaries are already meager.
The court ordered the state to return to the roughly 36,000 asylum seekers all the money that has been piling up in the these funds over the past three years within the next 30 days.
The purpose of the Deposit Law is to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country by making their day-to-day life more difficult, according to the law’s sponsors and the Interior Ministry. “After the failure to expel infiltrators, this law is the only legal tool we have today to encourage infiltrators to leave voluntarily,” MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) said in a May 2018 hearing discussing the legislation that also highlighted lax enforcement and widespread abuse.
In addition to the 20%, employers are responsible for depositing an additional 16% of the salary to the fund, the same way employers pay a similar amount into pension plans for Israeli workers. Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank oversees the deposit accounts, but is not obligated to send reports or summaries about the accounts to the workers, and the accounts are not covered by the Law of Oversight Over Financial Services in Israel.
The High Court ruled Thursday that companies would still be required to deposit the additional 16%.
The justices also used the ruling to criticize the state’s handling of asylum requests, saying they have been dragging on for far too long without a response, thereby “intensifying the violation of asylum seekers’ property rights.”
Thursday’s ruling had been in response to a petition against the Deposit Law filed by the Kav LaOved workers and refugee rights group as well as the Tel Aviv University clinic for migrant rights.
Asylum seekers’ rights groups issued a joint statement saying that the Deposit Law had “been born in sin and whose purpose [had been] to expel people who sought refuge from persecution… and allowed for the committing of daily theft.”
“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,” the statement concluded.
Lawmakers from the religious nationalist Yamina party fumed at the High Court of Justice for striking down the Deposit Law for asylum seekers.
“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.
Ayelet Shaked, the former justice minister, argued that the Deposit Law had been effective in encouraging asylum seekers to leave the country.
“Only an override clause will put an end to this,” she wrote on Twitter, referring to proposed legislation allowing the Knesset to overturn High Court rulings with a majority of votes.
However, Chief Justice Esther Hayut responded to the claim that the legislation has been effective in encouraging asylum seekers to leave the country, citing data that proved Shaked’s assertion to be “inconclusive.”
“I believe that there is no definite benefit to the deposit arrangement, as far as this purpose is concerned,” Hayut said.
Likud MKs Gideon Sa’ar, Yoav Kisch and May Golan announced that they had submitted a bill to override the court’s ruling.
In an apparent recognition of the asylum seekers’ plight, the Interior Ministry published a legislative proposal earlier this month that would allow migrants to withdraw up to NIS 2,700 a month from their deposit funds.
But following pressure from anti-immigration activists, Likud and Yamina MKs pushed through an amendment to the brewing legislation that would require asylum seekers to repay the money they withdraw by January 2021.
Rights groups say that the sum discussed would not be sufficient even to cover rent for many migrant families, pointing out that the vast majority of asylum seekers have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But unlike Israeli citizens, migrants have no unemployment benefits or national insurance to fall back on.