Securing Vaccines for Asylum Seekers and Palestinian Workers

After a campaign by NIF grantee Physicians for Human Right Israel (PHRI), Israel has begun administering Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to refugees, asylum workers, migrant workers and other residents who are not members of Israel’s health care system and have no access to health insurance. The vaccination drive, which follows pressure from PHRI and other human rights organizations, is being conducted by Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality.

Despite the vaccination rollout for residents who have no formal legal status in Israel, many are suspicious about getting vaccinated. Refugees said that general mistrust of the authorities stemming from years of threats of detention and deportation has fueled fears that the vaccination campaign was a ruse to carry out such threats. As it became apparent that official immigration inspectors were not present at the vaccination centre in Tel Aviv, more asylum seekers have turned out to be vaccinated.

Kuvram Tualda, an asylum seeker from Eritrea who was inoculated last week, said, “As was the case with COVID-19 testing, there is a lot of suspicion in the community [towards the vaccine campaign]. But ultimately this is about health and basic humanity.”

Dr. Zoe Gutzeit, the director of the migrant and refugee program at PHRI said, “This is a welcome move but it does not immunize them against continued neglect.” Dr. Gutzeit said that vaccinating the refugees and migrants is very challenging. “After abandoning and excluding this population for so many years, then it’s not so simple when you decide to do the right thing.”

Dr. Gutzeit said that if all refugees and asylum seekers and migrants who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic had been given government-subsidized health coverage, then most of the problem would have been solved.

Refugees and migrants participating in the vaccination program expressed hope that the country would soon return to normal and they could return to work. ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel has seen a 111% rise in requests for basic health in food, clothing and rent over the past year.

Vaccinating Palestinian Workers

Following major pressure from NIF grantees, as COVID-19 spread in the occupied territories reaches a new peak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz have approved the request from the Palestinian Authority to vaccinate Palestinians holding permits to work in Israel and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a total of 120,000 Palestinians – only 2.5 percent of the Palestinian population residing in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the first stage, 50,000 Palestinian workers will each receive two Moderna vaccine doses. If the vaccination program is successful, the other 70,000 Palestinian workers will receive vaccinations. It has not yet been decided whether a vaccination will be a precondition for working in Israel.

So far, only a few thousand doses of the vaccine have been transferred from Israel to Palestinian health authorities.

The vaccine drive will be conducted by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the branch of the Ministry of Defense responsible for civilian matters in the Occupied Territory together with IDF Central Command, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Defense Crossing points Authority. The rollout will begin with vaccination centers being set up at checkpoints in the West Bank where Palestinian workers enter Israel. Israeli medical staff will administer vaccinations.

Israeli human and civil rights organizations including NIF grantees are focusing pressure on the government to fulfill its role as an occupying power and provide vaccines for all Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, not only those who work in Israel. Under international law, Israel is required to ensure the public health and hygiene of the occupied population.

NIF grantees have also urged the government to ensure equitable access to the vaccine for people living in Israel without legal status as well incarcerated people. See: COVID-19 Vaccination Distribution in Israel: Advocating for Equality.

Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir

March 2021