Sharp Increase in Sex Trafficking in Years Since Israel Lifted Visa Restrictions

Justice Ministry official says criminals are bringing in women from Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Russia and Georgia on three-month tourist visas.

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

The number of women entering Israel to work in prostitution has risen considerably over the past few years due to Israel’s waiving of visa requirements for visitors from the former Soviet Union, according to the Justice Ministry head responsible for combating human trafficking.

Dina Dominitz said the visa waiver agreement allows criminals to bring in women from Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Russia and Georgia more easily, since they enter Israel legally as tourists.

Dominitz discussed the problem in a letter to MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), head of the Knesset Subcommittee on Combating Trafficking in Women and Prostitution.

She called it a new way of exploiting women, who are brought here by criminals to work in prostitution.

According to Population, Immigration and Border Authority data, some 300 women from Ukraine and Russia were refused entry to Israel last year on suspicion of intending to work here as prostitutes. In 2015, the number of women refused entry for this reason was 50.

Warnings that the visa exemption would lead to an influx of prostitutes, voiced before the agreements were signed, were dismissed in favor of encouraging tourism.

A Foreign Ministry official said: “Israel is watching the exploitation of the visa waiver agreement with concern. We are studying the issue with the Justice Ministry to understand the scope of the problem and find a solution.”

Dominitz said the trafficked women share the money they get from prostitution with the criminals, who house them in apartments and hotels. They usually return home when their tourist visa runs out after three months. The traffickers’ treatment of the women has worsened in recent years and the women are subjected to more violence and rape, she said.

Although the women are hard to track because they leave Israel – even if some later return for another three months – Dominitz and other officials are convinced their number is increasing. Police say they find more of the women in strip clubs and on prostitution websites.

“It’s difficult to find women who are willing to testify against the traffickers,” noted Dominitz. “Most of them don’t see themselves as victims, and won’t consider staying in a shelter and spending a year in a rehabilitation program with a legal work permit. If found, they ask to return to their home country.”

“Smuggling women for prostitution is an industry involving millions of dollars, so the pimps and traffickers exploit every loophole in the visa policy,” said Lavie. “Israel has come a long way in dealing with human trafficking, and its achievement has been recognized by the U.S. State Department. We must not slide backward. Regrettably, the reports show a renewed increase in human trafficking, which means that those who made the visa waiver decision ignored the repercussions on women trafficking.”

A Population, Immigration and Border Authority official said that “due to the visa waiver agreements, in the last two to three years the number of tourists from those countries has risen, and the number of people refused entry has risen accordingly.”