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Asylum Seeker Children at Risk in Israel’s ‘Baby Warehouses’

Every day in Tel Aviv, about 5,000 children of asylum seekers attend daycare centers run by women with little or no training. Recent reports of infant deaths at some of these makeshift nurseries have caused a public uproar, but little action from the government.

Written by Gaëlle Faure Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Israel daycare 2
Inside one of the unlicensed, overcrowded daycare centers that are often the only childcare option for asylum seeker mothers working in Tel Aviv. David Kaplan

People call them pirate nurseries – or even “baby warehouses.” All over southern Tel Aviv, in apartments and in basements, overworked, underpaid women tend to the babies of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who can’t afford regular daycare. Most of these makeshift daycares are overcrowded, lacking in basic resources, and staffed by women with no training – a combination that can be dangerous for the children in their care.

Every year for the past few years, Israeli media outlets have reported cases of infants dying in these makeshift daycares, often from choking. A spate of five deaths in 2015 and another two deaths in two days this past summer led to a public outcry, but little change.

“We don’t want to send our children there, but we have no choice,” says Helen Kidane, an Eritrean asylum seeker who serves as director of the Eritrean Community Women’s Center and works as a house cleaner. “We have to work long hours to feed our children. Many of the Eritrean women are single mothers. We mainly work as house cleaners, and don’t make nearly enough to pay for Israeli daycares.”

Activists estimate that there are about 80 to 90 makeshift daycares in Tel Aviv, where Israel’s more than 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are concentrated. They live in legal limbo: Because Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the authorities can’t send them back to their home countries, which are considered too dangerous. Yet – apart from a tiny number of cases – their asylum requests have gone unanswered. Instead, thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese men have been sent to a detention center in the Negev desert, with the end goal of trying to convince them to leave for third countries, namely Rwanda and Uganda.

Female asylum seekers, who mainly hail from Eritrea, are spared from detention. Instead, they’re left to fend for themselves as they wait for asylum that may never be granted. When the child of an asylum seekers turns three, he or she can start attending Israel’s public preschools. But before then, parents are on their own when it comes to daycare. Which is why, every day, more than 4,000 children attend the makeshift daycares that are owned and run by women who come from all over West Africa.

“Most of these daycares are awful. There are no safety standards, no health standard, and no pedagogy whatsoever,” says Rachel Gutman, development director at UNITAF, an NGO that runs two legitimate daycare centers for asylum seekers’ kids – both with long waiting lists. “I am not blaming them. Most of these women [running the makeshift daycares] have never set foot in a [regular] daycare in their lives – it’s a uniquely Western phenomenon. So they don’t know that there is a correct teacher-to-child ratio, or that children must play outdoors for part of the day, or be picked up. They don’t know how to feed them correctly, and they don’t know how to stimulate them and help them develop.”

The makeshift daycares don’t have regular hours – parents often drop off their children very early in the morning, and pick them up late at night. Some leave their children there for weeks at a time, while they go to work in different towns.

A spate of deaths at these ad hoc daycare centers over the past two years has provoked public outcry, but little government action. (David Kaplan)

With its two proper daycare centers, which receive assistance from the Tel Aviv municipality, UNITAF is hoping to set a new standard. The NGO has trained women who formerly ran makeshift daycares, and has set them up in better facilities. The daycares have strict hours of operation: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Parents pay 850 shekels ($220) per month for each child. While much cheaper than regular Israeli daycares, which usually cost about $500 a month, that’s still higher than the rates for makeshift daycares, which range from 300 to 650 shekels ($75 to $170) per month.

The Israeli government has pledged to fund UNITAF-style daycare for 1,700 asylum-seeker children over four years. The first one of these daycares opened in December, and currently serves 244 children. But for now, the vast majority of asylum seekers’ kids are still stuck in sub-standard care.

With childcare options so limited for asylum seekers, NGO Elifelet is tackling the problem at the root – by supporting the makeshift daycares in the hopes of improving them from the inside. Founder Yael Gvirtz was working as a journalist in 2012 when she learned that someone had attacked a makeshift daycare with a Molotov cocktail while children were sleeping inside. No children were injured, but the apartment was damaged. Gvirtz and other Israeli volunteers helped the woman running the daycare find a new location and renovate it.

“I was completely shocked by this hate crime, and by the awful conditions these babies and children are locked in,” she says. “So I quit my job and started Elifelet.”

These days, she and about 200 volunteers help out at 14 makeshift daycares around Tel Aviv. “We ask them what they need. We buy food, or make medical arrangements. We never tell them ‘do this or do that,’” says Gvirtz. “But when they see our volunteers taking the babies out of the beds and into their arms, or reading them a story, they learn by observation.”

Gvirtz says that after the recent spate of infant deaths, authorities have carried out more frequent safety inspections at the daycare centers, which are only loosely regulated by the government. The inspectors often tell the women who run them to make a number of expensive upgrades to comply with safety regulations or face being shut down.

“When they are forced to shut down, the women go find another place, and it will probably be even worse than the one before, because changing apartments costs them money,” Gvirtz says. She believes the Israeli government is to blame for putting asylum-seeker mothers and their children in this situation. “The government refuses to register these babies in any way, so it renders them transparent,” she says. “And since they’re off the radar, that means Israel is not responsible for their rights – whether it’s their medical rights or their educational rights.”

For Kidane, the director of the Eritrean Community Women’s Center, it’s personal. “Honestly, in general, [politicians] hate our children,” she says. “They don’t want to see our kids grow up and stay here.”

Israeli politicians have referred to asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” with one minister calling them a “cancer” on the nation in 2012. In August 2016, Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, issued a ban on members of the armed forces volunteering with asylum seekers’ children, saying: “Charity should begin at home.”

Kidane has a young daughter who was born in Israel. She is now 3 years old, and attends a public preschool. But Kidane still hopes that peace will come to Eritrea so she can go back before her daughter grows up. “I pray that I can leave before she understands everything,” says Kidane. “Before she knows that she is different from the others, and that she isn’t accepted here.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the makeshift daycare centers as unlicensed and compared them to licensed childcare. In fact, there is no licensing system for childcare for under-three’s in Israel; instead, legitimate daycare centers are carefully regulated by the government.

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