Israel Failing to Do Minimum to Fight Human Trafficking, U.S. Says

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Police closing a brothel in Tel Aviv in March 2020.
Police closing a brothel in Tel Aviv in March 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A U.S. State Department report released on Thursday rebuked Israel's effort to deal with human trafficking, stating that the country “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." 

The annual report alleges that the Israeli government did not allocate additional funds for full implementation of the national anti-trafficking action plan for the third consecutive year and observes a chronic understaffing of police units to tackle the issue.

In its “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the State Department downgraded Israel to its second tier, out of four tiers, for the first time in a decade. The report covers 2020, under the previous Netanyahu government.

The report pointed to the decrease in the number of police investigations and prosecutions against those involved in trafficking, and the understaffing of police units involved. Only one officer was assigned to the police’s anti-trafficking coordinating unit for most of the year and was often re-assigned “to enforce pandemic-related mitigation measures”; and the cancellation of relevant training for officials, police officers and judges due to the pandemic. As a result, it was harder to identify and protect victims. The report cited data from Israel showing that in 2020 the police initiated 11 total human trafficking investigations, and that nine indictments were filed – compared to 18 investigations and 20 indictments in 2019.

Israeli government ministries may be making “significant efforts” against human trafficking, but, for example, the report stated in the case of shelters and other care facilities and rehabilitative services, that “these efforts were not serious and sustained compared to the efforts during the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the government’s anti-trafficking capacity.”

Prostitutes near a potential customer driving in Tel Aviv in 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The highest ranked group, Tier 1, has 28 countries and includes the United States, Spain, Philippines and Colombia. In Tier 2, the largest group, along with Israel are countries such as Germany, Italy, Denmark, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq.

In May 2020, the government promised to the High Court of Justice that it would establish a mechanism for appealing the decisions of the police’s anti-trafficking unit, and would finally formulate clearly the minimum standards for recognizing trafficking victims. The State Department report notes that Israel has yet to fulfill its pledges, which were made in response to a petition by the Hotline for Refugess and Migrants to the High Court.

The report also states that “government policies towards foreign workers increased their vulnerability to trafficking, and the government did not consistently investigate trafficking cases referred by NGOs.” It also criticized the state’s agreements with private Chinese employer associations, which “required workers in the construction industry to pay licensed employment recruiters’ fees and costs, which could increase their debt and vulnerability to forced labor.”

The Justice Ministry’s National Anti-Trafficking Unit, which is responsible for coordinating between all government bodies and with NGOs in combatting all forms of human trafficking, said the report’s findings can be attributed to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic – and the continuing lack of an approved state budget due to political instability since 2019.

Chinese workers in Tel Aviv last month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Anti-Trafficking Unit said it will “promote an in-depth learning process and draw conclusions from the report, with the goal of Israel returning soon to its proper place as a leading country on the issue, and serving as an example for others.”

Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline for the Protection of Worker’s Rights said that the report reveals that “Israel’s consistent efforts to obscure the fact that it creates and maintains employment structures that lead to manifestations of harsh exploitation of non-Israeli workers, up to the point of human trafficking and forced labor, have failed.”

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants also responded: “This is a wake-up call for the State of Israel. We hope the new government will respond to the report’s recommendations and demonstrate responsibility toward the most invisible people in Israel.”

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