TEL AVIV, Israel — In late March, a months-old son of Eritrean refugees died as a result of apparent neglect in an improvised, refugee-run day care center in southern Tel Aviv. The cause of death has still not been made public. He was the second baby to die in such a facility within 48 hours, bringing the total to five infant deaths in six weeks.
The Israeli Ministry of Health doesn’t track the deaths, since the victims aren’t Israeli citizens, but Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reports that dozens of babies have died of neglect or preventable illness in refugee-run day care centers over the past two years. While the most recent succession of deaths caused protests and a blitz of media coverage, the news did not shock those who work closely with the refugee community.
Miri Barbero Elkayam, the director of Mesila, an organization that works with Tel Aviv to address issues of refugee child care, said her group “saw this coming.”
“We’ve been providing classes for baby sitters for the past few months teaching how to care for children properly,” she said.
Mesila estimates that there are more than 70 ad hoc day care centers, known as baby sitters, across Israel that cater to the 46,000 refugees and migrant workers in Israel, the overwhelming majority of whom come from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea. The centers look after an 4,000 to 6,000 kids each day, about half of whom are under the age of 3.
The conditions in many of these centers are shocking, aid workers say. Haaretz cites estimates that say each one can have 40 to 80 children in cramped conditions with little supervision for periods ranging from 12 hours to several days.
Elkayam said children have been dying in these improvised day cares in Tel Aviv for years. In her view, the main problem is that the refugee community in Israel lacks basic social protections. The overwhelming majority have no health insurance, legal status or work permits, because the Israeli government doesn’t recognize them as refugees. Israel has accepted only some 200 requests for asylum since 1951, when it signed the Convention on the Status of Refugees.
As a result, parents often take “whatever job whenever and however they can,” Elkayam said, adding that migrants work long hours, sometimes outside Tel Aviv. Such schedules allow them two choices: leave their children at home or place them in the care of these baby sitters, since the tuition of municipality-licensed day cares — usually about 2,000 shekels ($500) a month — is far too costly. The situation is especially precarious for parents with children under 3 — the age when all children in Israel, regardless of legal status, are placed in municipal preschools and kindergartens.
Because these baby sitters operate outside the purview of Tel Aviv, they aren’t subject to the same regulations as licensed day cares. For example, the government requires licensed outfits have at least one caregiver for every six to 11 children, depending on the age group, and there are regulations on meal nutritional requirements and workday length.
Tel Aviv is attempting to address the issues surrounding ad hoc day cares. At the urging of nongovernmental organizations and activists who work with the refugee community, they held marathon meetings with social workers, various ministers, sanctioned child care providers and the prime minister’s office at the end of March to discuss ways to prevent further deaths.
The result of the meetings was a plan that allocates 14 million shekels to be transferred from the national budget to the municipality each year until 2019 in order to make suitable day care facilities available to the refugee population. The funds will pay for 30 percent of these new day cares, with the balance coming from philanthropic donations.
The new day cares will be based on the model implemented by UNITAF, an organization established in 2005 that runs state-of-the-art day cares staffed by Israeli social workers and members of the refugee community. UNITAF, though independent, has a close working relationship with the city and Mesila.
“Our program doesn’t want to provide everything for the migrants,” said Maya Peleg, the head of UNITAF, as she accompanied Al Jazeera on a visit to two of these well-kept facilities. “We don’t want to give them a fish. We want to teach the people how to fish so they can fend for themselves.”
There are currently six UNITAF day cares in Tel Aviv, and they adhere to Israeli standards. There is a strict limit to the number of children in each class, and the facilities are open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Tuition is 880 shekels a month.
“There is a huge gap between this amount and the 2,000 [shekels] I pay for my children to be in private day cares,” Peleg said. “Children here are in much better conditions than the children going to baby sitters, and the parents take pride in this.”
She believes the refugees are a “community that’s trying to survive,” and this means that for most of those who run day cares, it’s a business. Without regulation, price and quality of caretakers is driven down. “It’s the free market,” she concluded.
However, many in the refugee community feel the baby sitters have been given a bad rap. Al Jazeera visited one of the best-known, the Blessing Daycare, in a lower-middle-class area next to an industrial zone in southern Tel Aviv.
Visibly tired and bearing a look of suspicion, Blessing Akachukneu, a refugee from Nigeria, welcomed Al Jazeera to her modest but clean day care where she and a few volunteers look after 50 to 70 children from Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
On a good day, Akachukneu is on her feet for 14 hours. “I live here, so my day is never really over,” she said. “Sometimes there are kids until the late evening. Sometimes they stay the night.”
“We need help, we need funds, and we need security,” she added.
That last issue, she said, is her greatest concern. In April 2012, Molotov cocktails were thrown at her building in the dead of night while 21 children were sleeping inside. They managed to evacuate quickly, and no one was injured. The building, however, was devoured by flames.
In the wake of the attack, which aid organizations said targeted asylum seekers, grass-roots refugee support group Elifelet assisted Akachukneu in finding a new location for her day care. Since then, they’ve been on guard. Layers of curtains cover the windows facing the main road, and a large door reinforced by steel rods serves as the only entrance.
Although there is no shortage of children to look after, Tel Aviv is not a cheap place to live or run a business. Mercer, a New York–based consulting firm that specializes in retirement and investments, ranked Tel Aviv as the most expensive city for expatriates in the Middle East. For refugees, the cost is astronomical.
“Earlier today I went to see a new building for the day care,” she said. “We can’t afford this for much longer.” She said rent is 15,000 shekels a month, and she charges customers 400 shekels a month per child — and even that “is hard for these mothers at the end of the month.” On top of the rent, she has to provide food and pay bills. Electricity and water are almost half her monthly income, she said.
She said that her rent has tripled in the last three years and that she isn’t the only one who has experienced a spike. She feels landlords in southern Tel Aviv are taking advantage of an unprotected sector of Israeli society.
“If the people could pay more, I would ask more. If the government would protect rental prices, I wouldn’t have such high bills. And then I wouldn’t need to have so many children,” she explained.
Nearby, Felicia, who asked that her last name not be used, runs a makeshift day care. She arrived in Israel from Ghana 21 years ago and has worked as a baby sitter since. Like Akachukneu, Felicia said her days are long and her bills are high.
“This isn’t easy work, and we don’t do it because of money,” she said. “I’ve looked after [nearly] 50 kids a day for 21 years. I should have big money, but I don’t.”
On April 6, about a dozen police officers went to Felicia’s day care, asking for documents proving the residency status of her and the children. She said they were all without legal status, and many feared they would be deported. Israeli society has become more hostile to refugees in recent years, she added, and it pains her that African youths are now suffering from intimidation.
She is well aware of the difficulties — the hours, the bills, the harassment — baby sitters face in Tel Aviv. “But it’s no excuse. I can’t understand how a person could let a baby die in their care,” she said.
Now that Tel Aviv is allocating funds to expand the UNITAF model, including the regulations that come with it, Felicia and Akachukneu worry their day cares may soon be out of business, even though Mesila provided Felicia with the necessary training to be a licensed Israeli child care provider.
“I have worked for years at this, and we have all the qualifications needed,” she said.