Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Israel: Migrant workers' toddlers suffer in makeshift kindergartens

Hundreds of toddlers, children of undocumented migrant workers in Israel, are suffering severe physical and mental hardship in squalid informal day care centres in Tel Aviv, a government-funded body, Mesilah, said.

The smell of urine permeates a rundown apartment in southern Tel Aviv where 30 children are kept for long hours each day. The windows are shut for most of the day and there is no air-conditioning despite the heat and humidity.

M., the caretaker, told IRIN that while she tries her best, the work is hard and tiring. The toys were kept out of reach on the top shelf, because there was no room in her tiny apartment for children to play with them. There was no fire safety equipment or emergency exit.

Despite these conditions, Mesilah social workers said this setup is considered among the best of the makeshift kindergartens. About 500 children under the age of three are kept at these kindergartens, said Mesilah.

In March, Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child, another government body, was appalled after a visit to the informal kindergartens, saying: "The state must open and operate proper daycare centres and close these 'improvised detention centres' now."

"Crying is futile"

"The babies in these kindergartens have ceased crying, they've learned that crying is futile, no one has the time to pick you up," said a social worker who has followed the issue.

The lack of time, stemming from the presence of only one caretaker for so many children, means toddlers are left in dirty nappies and feeding is delayed.

Mesilah has contact with 26 services in an attempt to improve conditions, but social workers admitted there are many more.

Moses, an Israeli married to a Philippino who runs a "babysitter" service, said his wife's establishment is adequate and invited IRIN to visit. However, the service, with its blaring TV and tiny yard, is a far cry from local Israeli kindergartens.

Born to migrant workers who work long hours, the children can end up being "caged" for up to 16 hours a day. The caretakers are often untrained and the children's mental development is impaired, Tamar Schwartz, the director of Mesilah, said, adding that corporal punishment is applied at times.

Deportation campaign

The need for daycare was increased by a mass deportation campaign conducted over the last few years by the government of Israel and its immigration authority. Over 160,000 foreign workers were either deported or left in the past five years since the authority's founding and almost none have been able to immigrate. More men than women have left as a result of the campaign.

"The deportations reduced the community to half its size," an official at the authority told IRIN, requesting anonymity. The official estimated that only some 45,000 foreign workers live in Israel today.

"The women left behind doubled their work shifts to keep supporting families in their native countries and pay off loans taken to obtain passage to Israel," the official said, adding that the deportation of men was intended to motivate the women to follow.

But with many of the men gone, makeshift kindergartens or babysitter services sprouted in the poor neighbourhoods where the foreign workers live, so the mothers could continue to work.

Little choice

The mothers have little choice, says Schwartz, due to the high price of professional daycare and the low salaries of illegal migrants.

All children can enter the Israeli school system at age three, regardless of their parents' legal status. However, after the ordeal of the "babysitter" services, they need support to catch up with their peers, observers said.

Karen Tal, director of the Bialik school in Tel Aviv which caters for the migrant community, said she planned programmes for the new school year to allow some of the children to spend the afternoon on school grounds.

In the past, many children went back to the illegal kindergartens after school finished in the early afternoon, until their guardian picked them up in the evening or night.

Mesilah, founded by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality in 1999, is an assistance centre for the foreign community in Tel Aviv funded by the Israeli government. As part of the Tel Aviv Municipality, it is regulated and controlled by the Interior Ministry.

Similarly, Mesilah said it had opened a playgroup, staffed by Israeli and foreign teachers, where 60 children enjoyed conditions similar to regular service at more affordable rates. Although government-funded, it also raises donations to run the kindergarten.

Schwartz, the director, said she would like to open more kindergartens and "release" children from their "cages", but worries that donations will dry up for the one she has managed to launch.

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright