Israel Planning Deep Cutback in Unit Fighting Human Trafficking

Sources, human rights groups assert reducing staff, relieving it of certain duties, would have dire consequences; ministry denies it has any such plans.

An anti-prostitution protest in Tel Aviv, August, 2015.
Ofer Vaknin

The Justice Ministry is planning a significant reduction of the National Anti-Trafficking Coordinator’s office, including revoking its independent status and altering the scope of its activity, say ministry sources.

The unit has been one of the key players in the fight against human trafficking, and in the last decade has helped to boost Israel’s standing in the U.S. State Department reports that rank countries based on how they are dealing with this scourge. In wake of the changes, the unit’s director, attorney Dr. Merav Shmueli, announced her resignation.

“There is no official decision yet,” said a source familiar with the situation. “However, the signs point to this being much more than a seemingly meaningless organizational change. It looks like the unit is going to be relieved of most of its duties.”

Michal Leibel, far right, at a court hearing regarding the order to close a brothel in Tel Aviv, October 19, 2015. Next to her, from left, are MK Aida Touma-SLiman, Vered Sweid, chairperson of the Authority for the Advancement of Women and attorney Gaby Lasky.
David Bachar

Human rights groups are warning against downsizing the unit. “A few years from now, we’ll find ourselves having to deal with human trafficking, only by then the scope of the problem will be much larger,” says attorney Michal Leibel, director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking. 

The National Anti-Trafficking Coordinator’s office was established in 2006 as an independent unit within the Justice Ministry to coordinate various authorities’ activities regarding the issue. The unit deals with trafficking involving prostitution, sexual exploitation, slavery, forced labor and organ harvesting. Shmueli has headed the unit for the past seven years. 

Sources familiar with the situation say the Justice Ministry is seeking to limit the unit's independence by making it subordinate to the ministry’s counseling and legislation department; to reduce the training it provides to professionals dealing with trafficking victims; and to reduce its already small number of personnel, which consists of two lawyers, an intern, a secretary and a national service volunteer. One source also said it is possible the unit will no longer be asked to provide professional opinions on human trafficking to various law enforcement bodies, and will also cease to represent Israel at international conferences.

A Justice Ministry statement from last summer noted that the most recent American report “praised Israel’s determined enforcement activity” in the field “and the broad protections given to human trafficking victims in Israel,” as well as actions that included “establishing an up-to-date website for the coordination unit; working with officials in the tourism industry to prevent sex tourism; and lectures on the subject to the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic staff.” The unit promoted all of these activities. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said she was “proud of Israel’s achievements in the war on human trafficking. We will continue to be a beacon in leading this struggle.”

The Kav LaOved Workers Hotline warned: “Without the coordination done by the unit, it will be impossible to effectively combat trafficking, let alone eradicate it. With the unit's closing, the government will be de facto declaring that combatting human trafficking is not on its agenda.” Idit Harel Shemesh, director of the Awareness Center, which combats prostitution-related trafficking, said, “The move may derive from a mistaken perception that trafficking has been contained and so fewer resources can be directed toward it. But trafficking in women from foreign countries is alive and well, even if its modus operandi has changed. Closing the unit will return us to darker times.”

The Justice Ministry responded: “Dr. Shmueli recently announced her desire to step down from her position, and the ministry’s administration respects her decision. Naturally, a change of directors is an opportunity to reexamine and reorganize the unit’s work. However, no decisions whatsoever have been made concerning the unit’s activity, and no changes in its functioning or structure are planned.”