Israel Not Doing Enough to Fight Human Trafficking, U.S. Says

A State Department report denounces Israel's 'insufficient efforts to prosecute employers suspected of trafficking or slavery,' along with the country's lack of proactive policy to identify both victims and criminals

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Israeli police closes a brothel in 2020.
Israeli police closes a brothel in 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israel is not doing enough to prevent human trafficking and ”does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," the annual U.S. State Department report on human trafficking stated for the second year in a row.

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The report states that while the Israeli government still does not fully meet the minimum standards, it has “demonstrated overall increasing efforts to do so” compared to the previous year; the 2022 report, released on Tuesday, covers 2021.

According to the U.S. report, which is based on documents from Israel’s Justice Ministry and human rights organizations, the Israeli government did not investigate reports on alleged victims of slavery it received from these organizations and also did not make adequate efforts to investigate migrants workers' employers suspected of human trafficking or holding victims of forced labor.

In addition, the government reported on a fewer number of trafficking victims than in 2020 “and relied on NGOs to initially identify victims, rather than proactively identifying them,” the report states. In 2021, the government reported receiving 58 victim referrals from NGOs and government sources, compared with 74 referrals in 2020. Of the 58 referrals, the government granted official trafficking victim status to only 51 individuals, a decrease from the 69 victims recognized in 2020.

Of the 51 recognized victims, 17 were victims of sex trafficking, and 34 were victims of forced labor. The government recognized two male victims exploited in the Sinai prior to arriving in Israel, compared with one victim exploited in the Sinai recognized during the previous year, the report read, adding that in 2021, only two traffickers were convicted, compared to 12 trafficking convictions in 2020.

Even though the police’s anti-trafficking unit – the only official body in Israel authorized to grant recognition to the victims of human trafficking – received an additional officer, the unit “remained severely understaffed for the sixth consecutive year, which further hindered the efficiency of victim identification procedures and referral of victims to protection services,” it added.

The report also mentions the story of Zehava, a 22-year-old Palestinian transgender woman who demanded to be recognized by Israel as a victim of human trafficking – but was instead arrested several times for illegal residency and indicted four times. Her story, which ended in suicide, was reported in Haaretz.

The State Department’s recommendations for Israel included expediting processes to proactively identify and refer trafficking victims to appropriate care, and authorize more government officials throughout the country to identify victims. Other recommendations include ensuring all potential victims have full access to services while their case is being reviewed for official victim recognition and to proactively screen vulnerable populations, including undocumented African migrants, foreign workers, Palestinian workers, and members of the LGBTQ community.

The state department report also suggested to increase enforcement of foreign worker and Palestinian labor rights, including by establishing systems to ensure workers have valid and fair labor contracts, eliminating recruitment fees for all foreign and Palestinian workers and ensuring any recruitment fees are paid by employers.

The report also recommended to substantially increase anti-trafficking awareness and victim identification trainings for law enforcement and front-line officials, including police officers, border officials, and prison officials, at regional and local levels; as well as increasing the number of labor inspectors, social workers, and interpreters in the agricultural, construction, and caregiving sectors and provide them with training on victim identification procedures.

The Worker’s Hotline for the protection of worker’s rights- Kav LaOved – said in response that Israel “issued a plan for fighting human trafficking, but has not yet managed to rise to the level of other countries that best fight the trafficking in their territory because thousands of migrants workers are employed under the harshest conditions, in which they are bound to their employers, under Draconian contracts with the state’s approval, in conditions similar to slavery.”

Kav LaOved's statement also addressed the employment conditions of Palestinian workers, male and female caregivers as well as the employment conditions of asylum seekers, saying that several victims of slavery among migrants workers were reported by the Kav LaOved organization along with victims of the torture camps in Sinai – reported by the Hotline for refugees and migrant workers. "We hope the state will implement the recommendations of the U.S. State Department,” Kav LaOved said.

The Justice Ministry said in response that the government is “determined to continue in its combined efforts to improve the tools for handling the manifestations of trafficking and forced labor in Israel, until it reaches back 'the highest tier.'"

The “Trafficking in Persons Report” divides all countries into four categories. For a decade until 2020, Israel was among the world’s leading countries in fighting human trafficking, but in 2020 and 2021 it fell into the second out of the four categories, Tier 2, the largest category – along with countries such as Croatia, Denmark, Italy, Japan and Portugal – as well as Iraq, Angola, Kenya and Sudan. Tier 2 is divided into two parts, the highest ranked group, Tier 1, has 30 countries and includes the United States, Canada, Spain, Sweden, the Philippines and Colombia.

The Israeli police responded to this year's report by saying they view the issue of human trafficking with "the utmost severity" and are acting with all their means to bring those involved to justice. "As a rule, when a suspicion that such a crime is reported and has enough foundation, the police act accordingly at the intelligence, investigative and operational levels together with the relevant enforcement agencies in Israel and overseas," the police said.

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