As crowds carrying unlit candles mill about Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, travel agents who manage large groups of Holy Land tourists from Kerala keep an eye out. They could get into trouble if they lose sight of the men and women from their group looking for a chance to vanish into thin air – and rebuild their lives as illegal immigrants in Israel.
“The line of pilgrims snakes through several crowded streets full of hawkers selling souvenirs and trinkets. It’s easy for them to give us the slip in the teeming crowds,” said Sanat John, a former travel executive who has earlier dealt with a group member trying to abscond despite four people keeping a watch.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains Christ’s tomb, is considered the holiest place for Christianity since the fourth century and attracts pilgrims from around the world, including Kerala which has a sizable Christian population. And for the past two decades, outbound tour packages to the Holy Land – historic, cultural and religious sites in Jerusalem, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt – have attracted thousands of faithful and curious travel enthusiasts from the state. But many among them have a parallel objective: to illegally stay back in Israel.
But it’s not just Keralites who are abusing tourist visas to migrate to Israel. Similar incidents have been reported from other states as well.
Tourists from Kerala absconding in Israel, the land promised by God to Abraham’s descendants in the Book of Genesis, received media attention in February when a farmer who was part of an official Kerala delegation went missing. Soon, Fr George Joshua, a priest who conducts pilgrimage tours from Thiruvananthapuram, revealed that six persons who were part of a group sent by him had absconded while in Israel. Those who absconded included women in their late sixties.
In the last week of July, Malappuram-based Green Oasis Tours and Travels said seven tourists who were part of their Holy Land tour group went missing while in Israel. Others in the group faced restrictions and were released by the Israeli partner agency after paying huge penalties. Five persons in a group sent by Al Hind travel agency also went missing around the same time. Interestingly, the people who went missing from both agencies were Muslims, which travel agents said was surprising since a majority of people who chose to illegally migrate to Israel were Christians.
Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina, is situated in Jerusalem and is an attraction for Muslim pilgrims.
Though a lucrative market because of the large volumes, the trend of tourists absconding once they reach Israel and the penalties involved has made it riskier for tour operators. Though some agencies run multiple background checks, it is impossible to gauge who may plan to illegally migrate.
“It’s a huge risk and over the years travel agencies have learned to weed out people who they feel might jump. The first red flag is customers who are not concerned about the package cost,” said Sanat.
After losing seven people on the tour, Green Oasis had to pay Rs 16 lakh as penalty to release the rest of the group members. Tour operators said Israel also looks at the age factor and other criteria while allotting visas. Green Oasis originally had 47 members but only 38 could enter Israel as the visa applications for the other nine were rejected.
Sanat recalls receiving 300 enquiries in one travel season alone while working in Kozhikode, which was suspicious. These calls were mostly from settler farmer families in Kannur and Wayanad, he said. People from the coastal stretch from Kanyakumari to Kochi too have been found to misuse Holy Land tours, according to people in the industry.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses the last four of the 14 stations of the Via Dolorosa or the Way of the Cross, a ceremonial walk which marks the journey that Christians believe Jesus took before he was crucified. It is also one of the spots preferred by tourists from Kerala to escape. “One would think it would be piety on their mind as they walk the path, but some of them would be scheming,” said Sanat.
People have chosen to leave the group without bothering to take even their passports or clothes. Some even left their children behind.
A key attraction for workers migrating to Israel, legally or illegally, is the salaries. As per Kav LaOved, an Israeli NGO working with migrant workers, the minimum monthly wage for workers engaged full time is 5,571.53 Israeli New Shekels, which is equivalent to Rs 1.2 lakh. Caregivers are paid extra for working on the Shabbat and on declared holidays. Also if the patient under their care dies, they are eligible for a full severance (pitzium) if they have worked for a year.
“I know people who entered Israel illegally and have taken up multiple jobs, earning much more than caregivers like me. Some of them make around Rs 2.5 lakh every month,” said Elsy*, who works in the north Israeli town of Beit She’an as a caregiver. Elsy said some from Kerala have now taken buildings on rent, which they sublet to migrant workers who enter the country illegally.
“It is a source of additional income for them. People coming over would have already established contact with them prior to leaving India. The migrants are specifically asked not to speak on the phone while in Israel,” she said.
Once they sneak away from the tour group, the absconders would take a taxi to a city or town in Israel to reach the address provided by their contacts, often Keralites who moved to Israel earlier. They would then approach lawyers who help them apply for asylum citing religious or political persecution in India.
“Once an individual submits an asylum request in Israel, their stay becomes legally recognised. Subsequently, they are often invited to a meeting in the ministry from which they received their initial visa, which is typically not a work visa. Asylum seekers are permitted to work if their request is still pending three months from the application date. But it must be submitted within their first year in Israel,” said Shira Abbo, head of the Public Relations Department at Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a non-profit. Their legal status could be at risk if they work before obtaining the appropriate visa.
Israel is a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention but is yet to adopt national refugee legislation. An United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2022 factsheet on Israel shows over the past 15 years, more than 80,000 people have sought asylum in the country but only less than 1 percent were allotted refugee status. As per the UNHCR, India appears fifth on the list of asylum seekers identified by country of origin with 992 ‘people of concern’ after Ukraine (35,000), Eritrea (20,000), Sudan (7,000), and Russia (2,438).
Joshua Pex, who works for Law Office, an Israeli legal firm specialising in immigration, said that it is legal to employ asylum seekers and infiltrators with a residence permit that states: “This temporary permit does not constitute a work permit.” But it is forbidden to employ asylum seekers whose residence permit has the stamp of “not allowed to work”, Joshua writes in an explainer available on the firm’s website.
“While applying for asylum, they would state that they are facing religious or political persecution in India. Once they get the protection paper, which ensures that they won’t be deported, they seek employment in supermarkets or in the construction sector. But they would need to renew the permit periodically,” said Elizabeth*, who works as a domestic care worker in Be’er Sheva, a city in southern Israel.
Israel allows asylum seekers to temporarily reside in the country while their application is being processed. The permits have a life of three months but can be extended until a final decision is made, which could take several years and may never happen.
Trapped in Limbo, a 2020 by Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, showed how the failure of the Internal Immigration Authority to cap the duration of examining asylum applications incentivises human trafficking and systematic exploitation of migrants in irregular jobs.
Shira said the situation is alarming. “There is a genuine concern that certain tourists may not be fully aware that their asylum petitions stand minimal chances of approval. Consequently, their time in Israel essentially becomes a race against an impending outcome – one that ultimately culminates in denial and subsequent deportation to their home country,” she said.
NGOs have also observed a recurring pattern whereby a small number of Indian citizens find themselves in immigration detention on an annual basis.
Marina Polinovsky, coordinator of the caregivers’ department at Kav LaOved, said they are yet to come across anyone in distress after having entered Israel illegally.
“We have been approached by a few caregivers from India, who told us that their family members tried to obtain visas to work in Israel with the help of agencies in India. They paid a lot of money for this service, but did not get any visas. In some cases, they received forged papers that looked like legitimate documents from Israeli agencies. In some cases, they gave money to an Indian agent in Israel, but in most cases the payment was processed in India,” Marina said in an email reply to questions from TNM.
K Harikrishnan Namboothiri, Chief Executive Officer of the Indian government agency NORKA Roots, said illegal migrations are not sustainable. “There is little we can do. Everything is perfect at the point of departure, this happens only after they enter the state of Israel. There is a limit to which countries can absorb migrant workers. This is not sustainable,” he said, adding that the agency is aware that people are claiming refugee status to continue their stay in Israel.
Currently the number of people who hold Norka ID cards in Israel is only 1,293, which does not reflect the real picture of migration from Kerala to the country, Harikrishnan said.
Solomon, a Keralite who works in Tel Aviv as a domestic care worker and has assisted migrant workers from the state who have fallen in distress, said a pre-Covid estimate showed the presence of more than 8,000 Keralites.
Jaffa, an ancient port city out of which modern Tel Aviv has grown, has churches – St Anthony and St Peter’s – offering holy mass in Malayalam, Solomon said. Holy mass is also in Malayalam and Konkani in churches in Jerusalem and Haifa at least twice a week, an indication of the growing number of expats in Israel.
While it is possible to immigrate to Israel legally, the expenses involved are prohibitive and candidates may have to show some proficiency in Hebrew or English. Recruitment agencies may charge up to Rs 15 lakh for workers in the care worker segment, which could lead them to debt. Going on a Holy Land tour package is cheaper as it costs only around Rs 1.5 lakh.
Travel operators feel illegal migration can be stopped if the state formulates policies and tie-ups that would end such exploitation.
“I have heard people back home in Kerala blaming this on some kind of racket, but the truth is that these people are coming of their own volition to better their lives. The income is not taxable and living expenses are not high if they choose to live in cities other than Tel Aviv,” noted Solomon, who has been in Israel for the past 15 years.
“There are many who work in the construction sector, mostly related to the Metro, which fetches 50 shekels an hour. Cleaning jobs are also plenty though the pay is less, around 35 shekels,” said Solomon. Fifty shekels is about Rs 1,088.
According to him, deportations do happen but immigration authorities do not seem very strict. “There is no penalty or long incarceration. At most the workers would have to stay in a detention centre for three to four days before the Israeli government puts them on a plane back to their home country,” said Solomon. There are many who work in the airport itself with temporary papers, which shows that Israel is favouring migration, perhaps to meet the growing need for workforce.
In May 2023, India and Israel that would allow 42,000 Indians to work in the field of construction and nursing, which would help Israel tackle the boom in construction and the growing need for personal care. This would mean more Indians can hope to migrate legally in the future without posing as tourists.
“I have known people who have been staying in Israel for years without meeting their dear and near ones back in Kerala because they entered the country illegally. They know they can’t come back if they leave,” said Elsy.
These workers may not be able to claim pension and other social security benefits that would accrue in their account – the peril of being undocumented.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.