Israel's Visa Waivers Offer New Opportunities for Human Trafficking From Former Soviet Union

Criminal elements have a new way of bringing women into the country to work as prostitutes – on a tourist visa.

Outside the old bus station in Tel Aviv. The average age of the girls entering prostitution is 13 to 14.
Nir Kafri

Over the past five years, Israel’s waiving of visa requirements for visitors from the former Soviet Union has offered criminals new opportunities for bringing women into the country to work as prostitutes. The figures are not in the thousands, like they were in the 2000s, when Israel was at the top of the U.S. State Department’s list of countries where trafficking was rampant. However, this is a new kind of exploitation of women that goes on mostly beneath the radar of law enforcement, with the women coming in legally as tourists.

The women work in the sex trade for three months, until their visa runs out, and then they go back to their home countries. If they are caught in a police raid they are not required to testify and are usually deported, which means that the police and the prosecution cannot collect evidence against those who bring them here, and most of the cases are closed without indictments.

Official figures obtained by Haaretz show that indictments are served only in 16 percent of prostitution and trafficking cases. Between 2012 and 2015, 1,561 cases were opened on suspicion of human trafficking, but 55 percent were closed for lack of evidence.

Between the phase of police investigation and that of prosecution “there is a huge gap that shouldn’t be there,” the chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, MK Aida Touma-Suliman (Joint Arab List) told Haaretz. Between 2008 and 2014, tourist visa requirements from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova were all waived, to encourage tourism from those countries. Even then the Justice Ministry expressed concern that trafficking for prostitution would go up as a result.

“The phenomenon of crossing the border illegally from Egypt that existed in the past is almost non-existent. The pattern is different in that there is no violence, holding of passports, holding women against their will. The women make money, they can go around freely. The challenge to law enforcement stems from the fact that they arrive in Israel legitimately and most return to their countries and are not willing to testify,” a police official who specializes in the field told Haaretz.

Earlier this week, two men from central Israel were indicted for bringing in women from Russia for prostitution. Leonid Steiner and Assaf Ben-Ari, both 34, are also accused of operating a brothel and causing a person to leave their country to work in prostitution. The indictment states that Ben-Ari operated a brothel in apartments in the City Tower and Moshe Aviv buildings in Ramat Gan, and on Ben-Gurion Street in Bat Yam.

According to figures obtained by Haaretz, every year dozens of women from the former Soviet Union enter Israel to work as prostitutes. Figures from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority show that since the beginning of the year, 50 women were denied entry into Israel because it was suspected they were coming here to work in the sex trade.

“When a flight comes from Ukraine with 250 people on board, mostly tourists, and they come as tourists, it’s not fair to check every one,” an official in the population authority familiar with the issue said.

The Social Affairs Ministry operates shelters for women recognized as victims of trafficking, who are entitled to a year of rehabilitation. “Over the past two years, 24 victims of trafficking for prostitution have come to the shelters. Clearly not everyone comes to the shelters; some choose to go back to their countries,” said Yasmin Confino, director of services for victims of human trafficking in the Social Affairs Ministry. “It’s clear to us that the situation in Ukraine today and the waiving of visa requirements is fertile ground for this phenomenon,” she added.