No Status, No Hope: Women Refugees in Israel
By Rebecca Garfinkel
Women refugees are one of the most marginalized populations in the world. As with all asylum seekers, women refugees face persecution both in their home country and their host country because of their status and identity. The situation is even worse in Israel, which continues to deny refugee status to all but a few of the 40,000 asylum seekers within its borders, 7,000 of whom are women. No status means no rights: no medical care, no public assistance, and the constant threat of detention and deportation. The consequences of such a policy land disproportionately on women.
Take, for example, the problem of pregnancy. Unlike citizens and residents of Israel, who receive free health insurance from the government, asylum seekers without status are not entitled to free medical care. The few who manage to obtain work permit do receive health insurance through the state, but most jobs available to asylum seekers offer low wages and scant job security, such as dishwashing and house cleaning. A woman who becomes pregnant can rarely obtain maternity leave, so she is forced to quit her job and forfeit her health insurance, causing her to pay her pregnancy and childbirth expenses out-of-pocket. These expenses can amount to tens of thousands of shekels, which may plunge new families into debt. These mothers are then less likely to seek medical care after their pregnancy for fear of compiling further debt or being penalized for their existing balance. Women’s health — and their children’s — suffers as a result.
Another situation in which women refugees are particularly victimized is in cases of domestic abuse. In a 2015 article by ASSAF, an organization that advocates for the rights of asylum seekers in Israel, 60% of female asylum seekers reported having been victims of domestic violence. Many remain in abusive relationships due to financial or cultural pressure. This is especially true for pregnant women or mothers with young children, who may have health insurance solely through their partner’s job. Those who do choose to leave an abusive home may seek safety at a shelter for battered women, but these shelters are no haven. Israeli citizens and residents in the shelters are entitled to an array of free support services such as counseling and rent assistance once they leave the shelter. Asylum seekers are not entitled to such support. Such services are sometimes available at a cost, but it is rare a woman who has fled her home and job can afford them. Likewise, free legal counsel is available only to Israeli citizens; if a refugee wants to bring a legal claim against her partner — for child support payments, for example — she must hire her own lawyer, which can cost thousands of shekels. She will likely face discrimination when she leaves the shelter, as many landlords refuse to rent to asylum seekers, especially single mothers. In such a situation, women face tremendous pressure to return to their abusers—or to never leave at all.
Women refugees, already victims by virtue of their status, are tormented by Israeli government policies and general public apathy toward their plight. If we believe in the rights of women, we must fight for the rights of all women, especially the most vulnerable among us.
 Drori-Avraham, ADI, Single Mother Asylum Seekers 3 (Inna Eizenberg & Renana Ne’eman eds., 2016).
 Andrea Gagne, In Israel’s War Against Refugees, Women Are the First Casualties, Times of Israel: Blogs (Dec. 5, 2018), https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/in-israels-war-against-refugees-women-are-the-first-casualties/.
 Aid Org. for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel & Eritrean Women’s Cmty. Ctr., Briefing to the Comm. on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women 68th Session 6 (Oct. 2017).
 Interview with Rachel Friedman, Staff Attorney, HIAS Israel, in Tel Aviv, Israel (June 15, 2019).
 Aid Org. for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Asylum Seekers who are Victims of Domestic Violence: The Next Murder is Around the Corner 1 (Nov. 2015).
 Id. at 2.
 Interview, supra note 4.