migrant workers

Caught up in war, Israel’s migrant workers face tough choices


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Caught up in war, Israel’s migrant workers face tough choices

MIGRANT WORKER DEATHS. Coffins carrying bodies of Thai migrant agricultural workers who were killed in an attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel, arrive at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand, October 20, 2023.

Artorn Pookasook/Reuters

The killings of migrant workers have caused alarm among the roughly 110,000 foreign laborers who currently live legally in Israel, prompting thousands to line up to leave

Thousands of miles from home, Thai laborer Kamlue was on his way to harvest courgettes on an Israeli farm near the Gaza border on Oct. 7 when the truck he was riding on came under heavy fire.

“They launched a relentless barrage of gunfire from every direction,” he said, asking not to use his full name as he recounted his escape from the Hamas attack.

The driver of the truck managed to steer it to a safe position, but Kamlue was among several workers who were wounded.

“I was shot in my right leg, and I’m still recovering from the injury,” said the 41-year-old, who returned to Thailand on a repatriation flight organised by the Thai government but plans to return to Israel to work to help clear his debts once the security situation improves.

According to Thailand, at least 30 of its nationals – mostly farm workers – were killed, 16 wounded and 17 were among those taken hostage during the rampage by the Hamas militant group in Israeli towns that killed about 1,400 people, most of them civilians, earlier this month.

Four Filipino care workers were among those killed and two more are missing, officials said.

Israel has responded to the Hamas attack by pounding Gaza with air strikes, killing thousands, and has vowed to annihilate the Palestinian group.

The killings of migrant workers have caused alarm among the roughly 110,000 foreign laborers who currently live legally in the country, prompting thousands to line up to leave.

Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said last week it had organised daily repatriation flights for its citizens and at least 8,160 Thai nationals have asked to return home so far.

The Philippine government said on Thursday, October 19, it would provide medical and financial aid to Filipino workers and shoulder repatriation costs. At least 36 Filipinos, most of them care assistants, have said they plan to go home, officials say.

Thai and Filipino nationals make up the biggest share of foreign migrant workers in Israel at about 30,000 each, according to the country’s Population and Immigration Authority.

Safety fears or work?

But while many migrant workers and relatives back home fear for their safety if they stay in Israel, some said they cannot afford to give up their jobs.

Marivic Yape, 40, a Filipino housekeeper who arrived in Israel in June 2022, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she had to keep working to pay off a loan of 200,000 Philippine pesos ($3,527) which she used to pay local recruiters and other expenses.

Though the tourism industry has ground to a virtual standstill, Yape said she had been working non-stop since the war erupted – cleaning rooms in hotels that were hosting Israelis evacuated from communities near the Gaza Strip.

“We were cleaning more rooms than before even though we were afraid. The only people you would see on the street at night were workers like us,” she said by phone from the southern resort town of Eilat.

Singh Donfueng, a 38-year-old Thai farm labourer who arrived in May, said he planned to stay in Israel to pay off a 100,000-baht ($2,766) debt even though his relatives – worried about his safety – wanted him to return.

“They want me to go back, but how could I? I would return with no savings and still have debts to pay,” he said.

Kav LaOved, an Israeli migrant labor rights charity, said it has been inundated with calls from migrants seeking advice on where to go to stay safe, what their rights are and whether they can receive state aid if there is no work available.

In parts of the country under rocket fire from Hamas fighters in Gaza or Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, a virtual shutdown of the economy has left many migrants without work, said spokesperson Assia Ladizhinskaya.

“Some are incapable to work because they’re traumatized and they can’t work on their farms, and now they’re thinking what to do next,” Ladizhinskaya said.

Migrante International, a global rights group for Filipinos overseas, said the Philippine government had been “slow to respond” to the crisis by not raising alert levels or providing evacuation plans as soon as the conflict broke out.

Filipino workers in Israel have long called on the Embassy to set up temporary shelters in case conflict erupted, to no avail, said Joanna Concepcion, the group’s chairperson.

Over the last two weeks, she said workers had resorted to creating and circulating their own lists of apartments or homes that have bomb shelters to those in need.

The Filipino Embassy in Tel Aviv did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

‘Invisible’ migrants

Labor rights groups said the war had highlighted some of the particular problems faced by migrant workers in conflict zones.

“When you have migrant populations segregated from the general population, what inevitably happens … is they become largely invisible,” said Nick McGeehan, co-founder of UK migrant worker rights group, Fairsquare.

“So when a conflict breaks out, they’re not on anyone’s priority list,” said McGeehan, who has researched the working conditions of Thai agricultural labourers in Israel.

In an online letter to foreign workers, the Israeli government said it had extended call center hours for foreign workers and issued safety instructions in various languages.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry and Population and Immigration Authority did not respond to requests for comment.

As soon as security improves, Thai farm worker Kamlue wants to return to Israel where he was saving money to clear his debts.

He said he borrowed about 200,000 baht to pay local recruiter fees and put his land up as collateral to secure a five-year work contract.

“If the situation calms down and we’re allowed to return, I’d go back to Israel without hesitation. I still have to settle my debt and support my family,” Kamlue said. – Rappler.com

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