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Washington — Forced laborers arrive under different circumstances. Most enter Israel voluntarily and legally. Once their work permits expire, employers or labor brokers refuse to return their passports, refuse to pay them or bar them from finding better jobs.
The State Department report lists improvement made in all categories, including law enforcement activity, identification of victims and the furnishing of assistance to those targeted by traffickers.
Israel, according to government figures, has seen a dramatic drop in the number and the severity of prostitution trafficking cases. It also provides victims with shelter, legal aid and temporary worker visas, all exceeding international requirements for treating trafficking victims.
Israeli authorities point to the recent conviction of super-pimp Rami Saban as demonstrating how far Israel has come in dealing with the problem. Saban was sentenced in May to 18 years in prison for 13 cases of forced prostitution. He smuggled women from the Former Soviet Union through Egypt into Israel and sold them to local brothels for anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000.
In the past, law enforcement and the courts viewed cases dealing with prostitution as vice crimes. They were met with relatively light penalties. But now, Israeli law includes a specific offense of trafficking in humans for prostitutions, and it mandates heavier punishments.
“This gave the bureaucracy a new button to push,” Gershuni said. “It made these crimes a human rights offense.”
Israel also saw progress in two other forms of trafficking. It gained its first conviction in a court case against an Israeli accused of trafficking for the purpose of facilitating organ transplants. It also won a landmark conviction of an Israeli who held a worker from the Philippines in conditions described as “slavery.” The Filipina woman was forced to work seven days a week, was denied free movement and was roomed in poor conditions. Her employers held her passport, thus preventing her from leaving the country.
While all sides active on the issue praise the actions already taken, NGOs providing protection and help to foreigners in Israel think the State Department’s upgrade was too soon and that important work still needs to be done.
“Nothing happened to justify this,” wrote Oded Feller, an attorney from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, in a mass email to activists. He noted recent legislation allowing bondage of caregiving workers to their employers, lack of prevention of forced labor trafficking and maltreatment of asylum seekers who fall prey to criminals in the Sinai desert as problems that still plague the treatment of trafficking victims.
Advocates are particularly concerned about the ongoing crackdown against illegal immigrants, especially Africans. Human rights activists fear that mass deportation and indefinite imprisonment of these immigrants could cast too wide a net, which will indiscriminately harm the trafficking victims entering Israel through Sinai.
Gershuni asserted that her office has made a clear distinction between victims of human trafficking and other foreign nationals entering Israel, saying that the former are victims of criminal offenses and should be treated as such.
“Does the anti-foreigner atmosphere harm the treatment?” she asked. She immediately responded: “It could if you let it. But our goal is not to allow this atmosphere to harm the treatment victims receive.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org