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Israel is still not in full compliance with American standards for preventing human trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department's 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Israel's ranking remains unchanged from last year: It is still in Tier 2, defined as countries that "do not fully comply" with America's minimum standards "but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards."

The report noted that Israel is a destination country for traffickers, who bring in people for forced labor and prostitution. At the same time, low-skilled workers from Thailand, China, Nepal, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and, to a lesser extent, Romania come here voluntarily to work in construction, agriculture or home health care.

But low-skilled workers from these countries "subsequently face conditions of forced labor, including through such practices as the unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, inability to change or otherwise choose one's employer, nonpayment of wages, threats, sexual assault and physical intimidation."

The report said Israel is still not doing enough to protect trafficking victims and to prosecute and convict traffickers. Israel's legislation on the matter is fine, it said; the problem is enforcement.

Israel also doesn't take adequate measures to identify trafficking victims, including among migrant laborers and refugees entering the country from the Sinai Peninsula, the report said. As a result, some trafficking victims "were penalized for offenses or violations committed as part of their being trafficked."

Nevertheless, the government improved its record on most issues during the period covered by the report.

Israeli human rights groups said yesterday the report confirmed their long-standing complaints about rules that bar labor migrants from switching employers, as these create fertile ground for exploitation. They therefore urged the government to adopt the State Department's recommendations, including by improving enforcement of anti-trafficking legislation and ensuring victims' access to the health and welfare systems.

"Instead of stepping up efforts to combat human trafficking, the Knesset opted just a month ago to pass a law that would bind labor migrants in home health care to their employers," five human rights organizations said in a joint statement. "This law is expected to increase labor migrants' vulnerability to exploitation and create fertile soil for human trafficking. Israel should adopt the report's recommendations and refrain from binding labor migrants to their employers."

The five organizations were Kav La'oved, Hotline for Migrant Workers, Physicians for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israeli chapter of Amnesty International.

"It's not that some good things aren't happening," said attorney Hanny Ben Israel of Kav La'oved. "There are people in [government] agencies whose heart is in the right place, and they do good work. But when you look at the system as a whole, the picture you get is sadly lacking."

According to Ben, "There's an intolerable gap between what the state says and what it does to fight human trafficking." She mentioned the fact that a ban on charging recruitment fees to labor migrants is not enforced, leaving them mired in what she termed "debt slavery."

"You'd think a country that has chosen to rely on foreign workers for more than two decades would have found a way to ensure that their arrival here doesn't expose them to all these ills," she said.