Has Israel given up the long fight against human trafficking?
In June of this year, Israel’s police commissioner, Yochanon Danino, announced the dissolution of Sa’ar, a unit that specializes in cases dealing with the exploitation of foreign workers and refugees along with other issues related to migration and human trafficking. In response, MK (Member of Knesset) Orit Zuaretz, the head of the subcommittee against human trafficking, called a special committee hearing. All in attendance, including government representatives and numerous NGOs, opposed the decision to dismantle what is the only law enforcement agency equipped to deal with these complex and increasingly important issues.
Following a petition filed by MK Zuaretz and NGOs Kav La’Oved and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch has summoned Danino to explain his decision, one that is clearly regressive in the face of Israel’s new immigration dynamics.
Toward the end of the 1990s, Israel became one of the top destination countries for human trafficking, particularly for purposes of forced prostitution. Women from Eastern European and newly independent post-Soviet countries were brought to Israel by the hundreds by European and Israeli smugglers and forced to work in what became a brazen sex industry. Held captive without rights, these women were nothing short of modern slaves. In 2000, the U.S. State Department ranked Israel alongside Cambodia as one of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders.
Thankfully, the situation improved significantly over the past decade as police, MKs and NGOs prioritized the issue. The Inter-Ministerial Committee Against Human Trafficking was formed alongside the Sa’ar unit with the goal of getting this issue under control. Trafficked women were identified and provided with medical assistance, legal aid and diplomatic assistance to return home. In 2004 alone, over 900 women were returned to their families. This was due to the successful cooperation of NGOs, the government and the police. All three were necessary in order to ensure success.
Though Israel’s progress is commendable — and has been recognized by the international community — trafficking still exists in Israel. Brothels continue to operate across the country populated by women trafficked into Israel for the purposes of prostitution. There are also a 1/4 million foreign workers in Israel who do not enjoy basic civil rights or humane work conditions, and are, therefore, vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, female asylum seekers — hundreds of individuals from the mass of 36,000 refugees who have arrived in Israel over the past few years — are marginalized by their race and ethnicity — are even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Because closing one avenue for human trafficking will not immediately dismantle the lucrative trade, and new dynamics are always emerging, the issue requires renewed attention and vigilance. Robust and focused policing coupled with the promotion of rights and protection for the victims are paramount for addressing these issues appropriately. Commissioner Danino’s decision to dismantle the Sa’ar unit can only mean, I argue, that he has chosen to turn a blind eye to Israel’s unremitting struggle with human trafficking and the exploitation of foreign workers and refugees.
While we should all be proud of Israel’s progress in combating human trafficking and prostitution, we must come to the realization that our work is far from over.
As a member of the international community, Israel has a responsibility to protect all of its residents, particularly the most vulnerable and exploited. It is, therefore, essential that a specialized Israeli police unit be tasked with understanding the trends, closing borders and protecting the victims.
The urgency with which the Supreme Court is attempting to reverse the decision on the Sa’ar unit is not only an appropriate course of action, but also a critical one. We have a moral, political and legal duty to help end human trafficking in Israel and around the world, and we must not rest until the battle is won.
(Kayla Zecher, the daughter of former Chronicle board member Susan Elster, and granddaughter of the late Chronicle General Manager Al Zecher, is the projects coordinator for ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, www.atzum.org, an entity that aims to engage the public and government agencies to confront and eradicate modern slavery in Israel. This column first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.)