In the first eight months of this year, 288 women on tourist visas were denied entry into Israel on suspicion that their real aim was to engage in prostitution. This marks an 87 percent spike over last year and reflects a sharp increase in the trafficking of foreign women that began after visa requirements to Israel from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova were eased.
According to figures obtained by Haaretz from the Population and Immigration Authority and presented here for the first time, in all of 2017 there were 217 women apprehended on such suspicions. In 2016, 300 women were detained, while in 2015, the number was only 50.
The Authority explained this increase as an attempt by crime organizations to lure women from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Belarus and Georgia to Israel to work in prostitution. The women are supposed to arrive with tourist visas. Most of them pass through border control without raising suspicions. Last year, 47.5 percent of the women apprehended came from Russia, while 38 percent came from Ukraine.
Between 2008 and 2015 there was a gradual waiving of the need to obtain tourist visas for people coming from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova, with the goal of encouraging tourism from those countries.
>> Read more: New Israeli bill fining prostitution clients may change thousands of women's lives | Analysis ■ Israel targets the sex industry: Moving to ban internet ads, fine johns and close websites
“The exemption from visa requirements has significantly raised the number of women coming here for these purposes,” explains Michal Yosefov, who is responsible for border crossings at the Population and Immigration Authority. “Agents in Israel usually contact them overseas and entice them to come and work here for high wages. Many of them don’t understand that the intention is to have them work as prostitutes. They see Israel as an attractive destination where they can make money. In many cases the women say that Israelis contacted them online and asked them to come to Israel in exchange for a generous amount of money.”
When these women refuse to cooperate with the Population and Immigration Authority they are immediately sent back to their countries. When they do cooperate and admit that they were brought here as prostitutes, some are sent to shelters run by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services for victims of human trafficking.
Police recently arrested 12 people suspected of operating a ring importing women to Israel and dispatching them to eight brothels across the country. Members of the ring located women in Ukraine and Georgia by posting job offers on local websites. A contact would come from Israel to meet the women who were chosen and accompany them back to Israel. Upon arrival they would be picked up and taken to Jerusalem, Haifa or Ashkelon. The 12 were arrested following the detention at the airport of one woman who raised suspicions of the Population and Immigration Authority. Five other women were detained for the same reason and sent to a shelter for treatment and rehabilitation.
“We are making great efforts and training staff to identify these women,” said Yosefov. “They come posing as tourists, often having booked a hotel in advance, making it harder to identify them as non-tourists. She added that if the recently exposed case results in harsh prison sentences it could serve as a deterrent to other criminals. “If there is no harsh penalty it could have the opposite result,” she added.
According to state prosecutors only 16 percent of files involving prostitution and human trafficking lead to indictments. Between 2012 and 2015, 1,561 files were opened against people suspected of trafficking and prostitution violations but 55 percent of these were closed for lack of evidence. These files include Israeli women, since there are no separate figures for foreign women. In the early 2000s Israel was on the U.S. State Department’s blacklist of countries in which human trafficking took place. Since 2012 Israel has reversed this trend, and been listed among the leading countries meeting the criteria for combating human trafficking.