For years, many African asylum seekers working in Israel were entitled to an annual tax refund from the government. But, because of an ambiguity in the tax law, they couldn't get their money back.
Now, thanks to a change in Israeli law--and a concerted outreach effort by the Jerusalem African Community Center--nearly 50 asylum seekers in Jerusalem have received help from JACC in exploring whether the government owes them long-overdue refunds.
And now around two dozen of them are slated to receive refunds of up to 20,000 shekels from the tax authority.
Under Israeli law, the government docks pay from workers in the country, and then gives a portion of that money back as a tax refund each year. But, until 2015, it was unclear whether asylum seekers were eligible for the refund, so the state held onto their earnings.
Then the law changed. Asylum seekers could start getting refunds, just like everyone else. On top of that, if they filed the right paperwork in time, they could collect all the tax refunds owed to them from 2011-2015.
But many people did not know about the law, or that the tax authority possibly owed them thousands of shekels. Plus, there was a deadline: the opportunity to collect old refunds expires six years after the tax period, meaning that December 2017 is the last chance to apply for the 2011 refund.
So a few months ago, JACC jumped into action and through Facebook, WhatsApp, and paper flyers, printed in English, Hebrew Tigrinya, Amharic and Arabic JACC started letting members of the Jerusalem African community know that, for many workers, a refund might be available.
Over the past few months, the main room of the Center has been filled every Tuesday night with small knots of people huddled around laptops, each surrounded by piles of financial documents and tax forms.
A group of volunteers, some of them law students at Hebrew University, have been on hand to assist asylum seekers navigate the tax bureaucracy, and fill out the right paperwork.
The process of getting the refund can be challenging. "It's very complicated," said Ester Levine, a law student at Hebrew University who is spearheading the initiative. "I'm still learning how to do it. If you don't know the language and everything, it's very hard to get the money back, money the tax authority owes them."
Even with this refund, Levine added, "they are still paying much more in taxes than Israelis," who tend to be eligible for other tax benefits.
The process may be complicated, but the benefits for workers and their families are substantial. The refunds have not been paid out yet, but Levine expects that some may be as high as 20,000 shekels (US$5,700, at current exchange rates). And for people who are mostly working for under minimum wage, even a few thousand shekels can make a major difference.