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 Monday, 6 January, 2003, 14:44 GMT
Analysis: Foreign victims of Mid-East conflict
Victims of Tel Aviv bombing, January 2003
Foreign workers have been caught up in bombings

Over the past two decades, Israel has become a magnet for foreign workers drawn by the prospect of higher wages and a better standard of living than they could attain at home.

While the number of Palestinians working in Israel sharply dropped after the outbreak of violence in September 2000, there has been a steady supply of immigrants - legal and illegal - to take their place.

If I die or not, it's a risk I have to take

Constantin, Romanian worker
However, the opportunity afforded by the conflict has carried with it grave risks; inevitably foreign workers have joined the growing roll call of innocent victims.

Integrated into Israel's cosmopolitan society, immigrants are as exposed to the indiscriminate nature of suicide bombings as the Israelis targeted, and sometimes more so.

The area around Tel Aviv's old bus station - known as 'Little Romania' - is home to about 80,000 foreign workers. It has been bombed twice.

In July 2002, two Chinese and two Russian immigrants were killed when Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up in the overcrowded, run-down district.

At least six foreign workers were also among the dead when bombers struck again, in the same spot, this week.

Economic boom

Foreign workers flooded into Israel at a time of calm in the 1990s, before the second intifada (uprising), when Israel was enjoying an economic boom.

Israeli soldier stops Palestinian at checkpoint
Palestinians have been barred from working in Israel

When the violence reignited in 2000, Israel banned some 125,000 Palestinian workers as a security measure and then sought to fill the void they left.

Foreign labourers took their places and by last year there were an estimated 250,000 immigrants in Israel - about 13% of the workforce.

Attracted by comparatively high pay, immigrant workers came from less economically developed countries, such as Romania, Ghana, Nigeria, former Soviet states, Poland and Turkey.

They are mainly employed in agriculture, restaurants and the construction industry - most labourers on building sites are Chinese.

Foreign workers fill the menial jobs vacated by Palestinians with Asian immigrants, particularly Filipinos, predominantly employed in home care for the sick and elderly.

'Human currency'

But the benefits of regular employment and the ability to save money to send home to their families is, for many workers, just a veneer.

Street vendor in Bucharest
Foreigners leave their home cities hoping for a higher standard of living

Behind the scenes, it is often a different story.

"We are currency, we are not human beings," said Constantin, a 33-year-old Romanian worker living in Tel Aviv.

"If I die or not, it's a risk I have to take. If I am afraid, I will have to go back [to Romania] and then I will starve."

While underpaid in comparison with Israelis, foreign workers can still earn more than 10 times the monthly salary they would back home.

More than half of foreign workers in Israel, however, are there illegally and risk arrest and deportation.

Many of the victims of the latest bus station bombing were too frightened to seek medical help in case they were turned over to the authorities.

Battered economy

Foreign workers are also subject to exploitation and unscrupulous employers.

Asian women at scene of Tel Aviv bombing, Jan. 2003
Israel wants to reduce its dependence on foreign workers

Working and living conditions can be very bad, but there is often little alternative because, under Israeli law, foreign workers cannot quit their jobs without becoming illegal immigrants.

Many also tolerate what can become a form of servitude because even illegal foreign workers are entitled to health and education services in Israel, and there are schools and clinics for their families.

Ironically, the conflict which brought the influx of foreign workers to Israel might also spell its end.

With Israel's economy hit hard by the battering of the tourism industry, unemployment among Israelis has risen to more than 10%.

The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has made it clear that most of the foreign labourers brought in to replace Palestinian workers will soon be asked to leave.


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