WASHINGTON — The State Department has put Israel on a special “watch list,” citing its “failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to address trafficking” in human beings.
In its annual Report on Human Trafficking, published Monday, the State Department contended that “the Government of Israel does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and has failed to show efforts to address “conditions of involuntary servitude allegedly facing thousands of foreign migrant workers.” Specifically, the report chides Israel’s government for not pushing to pass legislation criminalizing all forms of trafficking. It states that Israel “should also more vigorously enforce existing bans against charging recruitment fees and withholding passports, factors that contribute to the trafficking of workers.”
This is the first time in four years that the administration has downgraded Israel’s ranking, putting it in the unflattering company of Third World, mostly non-democratic regimes. The report classifies 149 countries into four groups. Most countries are in Tier 1, which means that they are effectively fighting human trafficking and reducing it to a minimum. A small minority, 12 countries that include Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, are in the lowest, Tier 3. These are governments that have not made “significant efforts” to bring themselves “into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons.” Such countries may face the withholding of American foreign aid. In between, there is the Tier 2 category and the even more negative Tier 2 Watch List for countries that are seen as not doing enough to improve.
Trafficking is one of several areas in which Israel has come under U.S. scrutiny. Others include religious freedom, human rights generally and money laundering.
In 2001, when the first trafficking report was published, many were shocked to see Israel ranked in Tier 3. The main reason for this low ranking was the pervasive illegal importation of young women, mainly from Eastern European countries, for prostitution in Israel. Efforts by the Israeli government to confront the phenomenon convinced the State Department to upgrade Israel to Tier 2, where it has remained since 2002. This year, however, Israel found itself downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List — one step away from being ranked again with the world’s most notorious regimes on the issue.
In reaction to the report, Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Israel “is fighting with various tools” against the phenomenon of violating the rights of foreign workers. The statement also points out that the report is based only on data pertaining to the period of April 2004 to April 2005. In the past year, the Israeli statement says, there were “additional actions taken, which contributed significantly to advancing the battle against trafficking in people.”
One explanation for Israel’s drop this year is that the report focused not on sex-related trafficking but on migrant workers. And although the report noted the progress that Israel made in fighting the trafficking of women, it pointed out that the government “did not demonstrate significant efforts to improve its protection of labor trafficking victims.” These victims, the report says, “do not receive adequate protection services. The government does not operate a shelter for their rehabilitation, housing them in detention facilities instead. Such victims are also frequently arrested and deported for violation of immigration regulations before they have an opportunity to testify against their employers. The government does not provide state funded legal aid to foreign workers, and often fails to include interpreters in judicial and deportation hearings.”
John Miller, who directs the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told reporters Monday that being on the Watch List is a “warning,” and that some countries on that list are in danger of slipping to the lowest category.
An ironic twist is that Rahel Gershuni, de facto anti-trafficking coordinator of the Israeli government, is mentioned in the State Department report as one of 10 “heroes acting to end modern day slavery” worldwide. Gershuni was noted for having “tirelessly led the Israeli effort to fight sex trafficking.”
The downgrading of Israel “is a sobering development that unfortunately reflects what we see every day on the ground,” said Shevi Korzen, director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli legal-aid organization. Korzen said that the main problem facing migrant workers is their inability to leave an employer who often maltreats them. Migrant workers, she explained, are typically recruited overseas by local human resources contractors, who charge them large sums of money — often up to $15,000 — to ensure a work license in Israel. Some of that money is paid to Israeli dealers.
Often, Korzen said, these workers have to mortgage their homes to pay the large sum. In Israel, they find themselves bound to their employers. They can’t travel back, because of the debt they left at home, but they are also not allowed to stay in Israel unless they are working for the Israeli employer who hired them to come to Israel.
In March, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that this policy, in practice for 13 years, was illegal. The court ordered the government to adopt a new one within six months. That process has not yet been completed.