African migrants reel as Israeli law cuts into salaries

The Africans, mainly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea, began arriving in Israel in 2005. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 August 2018

African migrants reel as Israeli law cuts into salaries

  • African migrants in Israel detained, threatened with deportation and faced hostility from lawmakers and residents
  • The Africans, mainly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea, began arriving in Israel in 2005

TEL AVIV, Israel: African migrants in Israel have been detained, threatened with deportation and faced hostility from lawmakers and residents. Since last year, they face another burden: a de facto 20 percent salary cut that has driven them further into poverty.
Israel’s roughly 35,000 African migrants and the groups that support them say the recent law — in which Israel withholds the money from their paychecks every month and returns it only if they leave the country — is yet another attempt by an anti-migrant government to force them out.
“I feel that they started the ‘deposit law’ to make our life miserable,” said Salamwit Willedo, a migrant from Eritrea who came to Israel in 2010. “We suffer for eight years here. If I had a country, why am I living here?“
The Africans, mainly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea, began arriving in Israel in 2005 through its porous border with Egypt after Egyptian forces violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the desert border, often after enduring dangerous journeys, before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.
Since then, Israel has wrestled with how to cope with those already in the country. Many took up menial jobs in hotels and restaurants, and thousands settled in southern Tel Aviv, where Israeli residents began complaining of rising crime.
While the migrants say they are refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, Israel views them as job-seekers who threaten the Jewish character of the state.
Israel has gone from detaining them in remote desert prisons to purportedly reaching a deal with a third country, believed to be Rwanda, to have them deported there.
In April, Israel reached an agreement with the United Nations to have many, but not all, of the migrants resettled in Western countries, with others allowed to stay in Israel. But the government quickly scrapped the deal after an outcry by hard-line politicians and residents of the hardscrabble areas where many of the migrants live.
The measures have kept the migrants living in limbo. The overwhelming majority have not been granted asylum and they lead a tenuous existence, often at the whims of the government.
Israel doesn’t hide its intentions behind the “deposit law,” which according to the Interior Ministry, is meant to make Israel a less attractive option for migrants.
The law requires migrants’ employers to hand over 20 percent of their salaries to the state, which says it keeps the money until the migrants leave, at which point they can reclaim the cash.
Unlike a tax, the withholding doesn’t grant the migrants any additional social services, to which their access is already limited. Employers are also tasked with storing an additional 16 percent of migrant’s salaries toward a pension fund, making this social benefit inaccessible until asylum seekers choose to leave Israel.
Employers who hire migrants must also pay an additional tax, implemented to encourage employment of Israeli citizens over foreigners, which makes finding work an even greater challenge for the migrants.
While Israel doesn’t shy away from the law’s goals, a spokeswoman suggested the money serves as a savings account for migrants choosing to leave Israel.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said the savings provide “a proper starting point for the beginning of the migrants’ new lives outside of Israel.”
She said the state is currently holding nearly $40 million in the “deposit accounts” of more than 13,000 migrants. Of the thousands who have left Israel voluntarily, 400 have withdrawn their money, she said.
However, the law is being challenged in the country’s Supreme Court, and many migrants view it as another attempt by the Israeli government to compel them to leave the country voluntarily. Under international law, Israel cannot legally deport asylum seekers.
“Always we are living under threat and uncertainty,” said Ghebrehiwot Tekle, an Eritrean who has lived in Israel since 2006 and works as a translator for an aid group. “Every year there will be a new law that can make our life hard.”
A year after the law’s implementation, the 20 percent salary reduction has been deeply felt by Tel Aviv’s community of asylum seekers.
According to accounts from various advocacy groups and asylum seekers, the impact ranges from people switching to black market jobs that pay them in cash to more women entering prostitution.
Families are also being forced to move into smaller apartments, choosing to place their children with uncertified, often unsafe baby-sitters, and giving up on paying for their children’s health insurance.
ASSAF, an Israeli aid group for migrants, has tracked the law’s effects since it was enacted. It said that requests to the group for food assistance by migrants have increased by a third over the past year. Inquiries regarding job loss increased by more than half and there was a more than 80 percent increase in migrants registering concern over homelessness.
“They used to be poor before as well. Now they are more poor,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy director of the Israeli aid organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
Willedo, the Eritrean migrant in Israel since 2010, said her family has tried to reduce their cost of living because of the deposit law, but it’s difficult given that most of their income is dedicated to paying rent. Instead, Willedo said they try to make up the difference by skimping on many of her children’s expenses, such as health insurance, diapers and formula.
For some migrants, even the inhospitable measures are not enough to convince them to leave Israel. Tekle, the translator, believes his fate could be much worse if he were to leave and pursue the same perilous journey other migrants have taken to Europe.
“There is no better situation,” he said.


INTERVIEW: Philip Morris International mideast chief on using hi-tech to progress toward a smoke-free future

Updated 18 August 2019

INTERVIEW: Philip Morris International mideast chief on using hi-tech to progress toward a smoke-free future

  • Tarkan Demirbas tells Arab News how smart technology will woo 9 million Gulf smokers and reduce risk

Alongside politics and religion, there is one other dinner party subject virtually guaranteed to push people to opposing extremes: Smoking.

In much of the world — especially the West but increasingly in the Middle East and other emerging markets — tobacco has been marginalized to the point where smokers feel shunned and lonely in many social environments, banished to pavements or poorly ventilated kiosks in airports.

After a series of multi-billion dollar lawsuits around the globe for the undoubted bad effects smoking has on health, Big Tobacco — the giant multinational companies that made billions out of the nicotine habit but neglected to say exactly how bad it was — is nowhere near as big as it once was.

All of which leaves Tarkan Demirbas with something of a challenge. He is vice president for the Middle East of one of the biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International (PMI).
Think Lucky Strike and the Marlboro Cowboy, legends of the industry and of marketing before grim, litigious reality overtook
the business.

BIO

BORN • 1968, Erzurum, Turkey.

EDUCATION • Bogazici University BSc Industrial engineering. • University of West Georgia, MBA.

CAREER  • Senior management positions at PMI in Hungary, Colombia, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland. • Vice President Middle East.

Demirbas is on message for the new anti-tobacco era. “There is no doubt that the best way to reduce the risks of smoking is to not smoke or use any nicotine product at all,” he said recently at an event in Dubai’s Capital Club, an oasis of tobacco-friendliness in the anti-smoking desert of the Dubai International Financial Centre.

On the surface, that seems a strange line from somebody who for the past 15 years has been promoting PMI’s products around the world, from southeast Asia through Budapest and on to Bogota with a stint at PMI’s Swiss HQ along the way.

But it coincides with a new direction PMI has taken. The new buzz-phrase in the company is “a smoke-free future.”

PMI launched the initiative with a “commitment and ambition to replace cigarettes as soon as possible with better alternatives to smoking for the millions of men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke.”

That might sound like turkeys voting for Christmas, but there is a sound business logic, as Demirbas explained. “The reality is that the vast majority of smokers simply do not quit. Even the World Health Organization’s own predictions forecast that there will continue to be more than 1 billion smokers by the year 2025,” he said.

“This is why a growing number of experts believe that public health policies should not be based solely on discouraging initiation and encouraging cessation, but need to leverage the potential of scientifically substantiated smoke-free products for the benefit of smokers and public health,” he added.

Technology is key to the campaign, and the product that PMI has come up with is IQOS. The Dubai event marked its regional launch. Imagine a slim mobile phone with a stubby cigarette sucking out of one end, encased it in a stylish carrying case-cum-charger, and you have an idea of IQOS.

Unlike other electronic smoking devices which vaporize nicotine juice, avoiding the harmful effects of the pathogens produced by burning tobacco, IQOS stays with the weed but does not burn it.

By heating tobacco sticks — called Heets — that look like mini-cigarettes to 350 degrees Celsius, the nicotine that smokers crave is released, but the tobacco is not burnt. Demirbas cites respected scientific sources as well as PMI’s own research indicating that 95 percent of the harmful by-products of tobacco are avoided.

Amid jokes that the Marlboro Cowboy would find it hard to use IQOS and ride his horse at the same time, nicotine-hooked cigarette smokers at the event said the result was pretty close to the “real thing.”

There is potentially a big market to go for, globally as well as regionally. Worldwide, some 150 million people use PMI’s tobacco products, still overwhelmingly traditional cigarettes. By 2025, he aims to get 40 million of those onto heated tobacco products like IQOS.

“This year, our priority is to go deeper into existing launch markets. We are encouraged by the results to date, including that there approximately 8 million smokers who have completely abandoned cigarettes and switched to IQOS. Japan is the best example of IQOS’ success, where we have achieved nearly 17 percent of the national share of the market,” he said.

IQOS is currently in nearly 50 markets, including Japan, Korea, Canada, a number of European countries such as Germany, the UK and Spain, as well as Russia, Ukraine and Colombia.

PMI passed a significant milestone in its campaign to go global with IQOS when the American Federal Drug Administration authorized IQOS and other variants. It will market its products in the US in partnership with Altria, the big investor which has made a commitment to the “smoke-free future” with multibillion dollar funding of Juul, the market leader in the worldwide vaping craze.

 “There are 40 million American men and women who smoke. Some of them will quit, but most won’t, and for them IQOS offers a smoke-free alternative to continued smoking,” Demirbas said.

Progress towards smoke freedom remains elusive in China, the world’s biggest market, where PMI markets Marlboro and in turn promotes traditional Chinese tobacco brands around the world.

The UAE joined the list of countries heading smoke-free last year when an IQOS stand appeared in Dubai International Airport’s duty free section. The UAE was ambivalent about the value of trying to lure smokers off tobacco and onto safer products, with the Emirates’ health authorities warning against the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices. 

But the IQOS airport stand was a sign of a change of heart, and was followed by public pronouncements that vaping would also be made legal. Users in the UAE had previously resorted to some pretty furtive measures to get their nicotine fix, but non-tobacco nicotine products appeared to be here to stay, judged by the large numbers of people seen sucking on devices in many outdoor public places.

After the UAE launch, non-cigarette nicotine is going mainstream. The Heet sticks will be on sale for around DH20 (SR20) per pack — roughly the same as a pack of Marlboro — in most traditional smoking shops, while the devices — retailing at around Dh250 — will be sold in Carrefour supermarkets and, eventually, branded flagship stores.

Demirbas sees the UAE as a testing ground for expansion into other Middle Eastern markets, with Saudi Arabia high on the list of targets. PMI already knows there is an appetite for its device in the Kingdom from the large numbers of Saudi citizens buying them at Dubai airport.

At the airport, they have to present national ID cards or passports as proof of age — 18 is commonly the age limit for buying tobacco products in the Gulf region — as well as making a declaration that they are already smokers who wish to quit cigarettes. “I stress that we are trying to convert existing smokers, not trying to get anybody started on nicotine,” Demirbas said.

“From a public health standpoint, we see great potential for reduced risk products in Saudi Arabia. In our view, it is important to set the right regulatory framework to ensure companies adhere to best practices and comply with local legislation with the adult consumers of these products in mind, particularly as alternative forms of nicotine consumption are being recognized in leading global markets, including Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is to convert all the 9 million adult smokers across the GCC, who would not otherwise quit, to IQOS,” he added.

PMI faces significant competition in its mission. Juul, the trendy but controversial device that has grabbed a big slice of the global market as the “iPhone of the vaping business.” Several other vaping products already have a foothold and a cachet that could be challenging for PMI.

At the Capital Club, the test audience for the IQOS launch was a mixed band of cigarette and vape users who gave the new product serious consideration. Some were sold on it straight away, others said they would give it a try and were gifted samples by PMI. The stylish look of the new product was a big selling point for the tech-style savvy consumers.

Others were put off by the charging process that has to be carried everywhere and used between smokes. One complained that the taste was simply too similar to the cigarettes he had been trying to kick for years.

As Big Tobacco seeks to reposition itself in the new anti-smoking age, the multibillion dollar nicotine industry will always be controversial. Maybe IQOS will be the hi-tech product that helps millions finally kick the smoking habit. Demirbas hopes so.

“We’ve invested $6 billion in it. It’s the most advanced technology there is,” he said.