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The bare minimum (not) given for those we owe nothing to

When Dr. Avishai Benish was my Social Security professor, he used to say that “service for the poor becomes poor service”. This is a sentence that stayed with me since.

The other day I was sitting at the Ministry of Interior in Petah-Tikva. Just a regular office Israeli citizens visit every once in a while. The place is spacious, well-lit, with big windows and enough chairs for everyone. The toilets are working properly and kept relatively clean, and inside you’ll find machines with automatic line numbers and large screens showing who is being served at the moment, so you can estimate the time it will take for your turn. Immigration clerks are walking around the big space divided into different departments, helping people get their line numbers or directing them to where they need to go. Every person arriving at the chamber gets in and waits inside. We were scheduled for an interview at 8:00 AM, and were called inside by 8:30 (the interview itself went horribly, but that’s a different story). Basically, a standard public service office.

How is this compared with other public service offices that handle asylum seekers? There, people wait in a large, unpleasant space, which feels dense and dark even though it has windows. There aren’t enough chairs, there isn’t a clear line and there is no way to get a number or know how much time it will take for you to get in. That is, if you managed to get inside that day, and didn’t waste the entire day waiting outside, only to have to come back at another time. At the Bnei-Brak office of the Ministry of Interior, where people are being summoned to Holot, they first have to wait in a big tent outside. They can wait for half an hour or they can wait for four hours. You never know. In case you decide to go out, for a smoke, a bite to eat or to the bathroom, you might miss your place in line and have to start everything all over again. If you take all the working parts from the different toilets here you might be able to put one decent toilet together, perhaps one faucet too. These conditions would be unacceptable for any Israeli coming to get his or her passport, but when a service is meant only for the weak these things are easily overlooked. No one will demand more or protest.

It might seem a bit petty to focus on the conditions in these places. When people are held for years and years in a position which is nothing but “non-removal” status, when they are sent back to countries of danger or easily thrown in prison for a year with no reason or purpose – the least of their problems is the type of service given to the poor, the tent outside or the broken toilet. And still, these things all come together. It’s that bare minimum that should be given to people we owe nothing to. The utter disregard towards people whose lives and time are constantly under-valued – what does it matter if they wait for five hours for a 30 minute interview, or waste another day and another more? It’s not a problem sending them off for a year in prison, and worse case, if it turns out we were wrong, they’ll be released later and no one will even think about making it up to them, for the year of their life that they lost.

Maayan Nayzana is an attorney at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants