A Redemption Tale for Some, but Not for All

6 May 2016
By: Reut Michaeli

It was only two weeks ago that many people in Israel and America sat around their table celebrating Passover, a holiday that commemorates our redemption as a Jewish people. “For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt”- an illustrious tractate that was uttered in many households- which we say to remind us as a community about the oppressive treatment we experienced as slaves in Egypt and our call to extend kindness to the other.

However the story of our time as slaves both in Egypt and Europe is something we relegate to an antiquated story that won’t happen again. The sad truth is that slavery didn’t end in Egypt, or with the Civil War, or with the end of other dictatorships. Parallel to our retelling two weeks ago of our redemption from Pharaoh, and our celebration as a free nation in a week’s time; people still live in bondage within the borders of Israel.

Human trafficking is not a new phenomenon in Israel, in the 1990’s with the fall of the Soviet Union; Israel became a destination country for trafficked women from the FSU for the purpose of prostitution. In response to pressure from NGOs and a Tier-3 rating from the US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, Israel worked to implement multiple laws and policies to identify and rehabilitate victims as well as prosecute their captors, and since 2012 Israel has consistently been rated a Tier-1 country.

Unfortunately redemption did not come for all even then. To Israel’s credit, the policies and practices implemented to combat trafficking, eradicated many of the trends that first necessitated the protections. However, with time, the trends themselves also changed, and Israel has had limited progress in adjusting its policies to meeting the new trends.

The trafficking of women for prostitution in Israel has nearly been eliminated for a few years but prostitution in Israel still exists. No longer are women being smuggled from ex-Soviet nations through the Sinai, they can enter freely through the airport due to visa-free travel between many FSU nations and Israel. As well, the current phenomenon of African asylum-seekers, many of whom are survivors of trafficking and torture, hasn’t been included in the thought process of procedural change to address the differences of their situation with that of trafficking survivors in the ’90’s and early 2000’s.

In the last year, more and more women, tourists from the FSU, were found in Israel working brothels or apartments. While these numbers might have been lower than at the height of the epidemic in the 90’s and 2000’s, it seems that there is a new trend in how women are coming to work in the Israeli sex industry. Yasmin Confino, the manager of the Ministry of Welfare’s shelters for TIP survivors, told Israeli reporter Liat Bar Stav on December 25, 2015: “… Today it is different. Today, the woman knows that she is going to provide sex services. She also receives part of the payment from the clients. She is not held captive and she gets to keep her passport and cell phone. Yet, since these are foreign women who live separately from Israelis and they do not speak the language, they are dependent on the pimps, dependence that contributes to the pimps’ control over these women.

While not all women who enter are victims of direct trafficking, many were still forced to leave their country for prostitution (another offence which is related to the trafficking in person’s offence). The lack of ability to charge traffickers with human trafficking and file charges against leaving the country is a shame. However the larger issue has been an apparent lack of cooperation between immigration authorities and the police. Since the majority of women found through sting operations are here with valid passports and on tourist visas, the Department of Immigration has been arresting women found in secret apartments and deporting them immediately. The DOI has been doing so without consulting with the police to open investigation into whether women were trafficked or pimps inside of Israel and without checking if those women are in need of rehabilitation.

The Hotline for Refugee and Migrants, who follows the Ministry of Justice’s Administrative Review Tribunal decisions’ database, discovered that in 2015 only 10 women had a hearing where a judge inquired about potential trafficking abuses that occurred. Due to the rapid deportations of women with valid passports, and knowledge that the sex industry is far from dead in Israel, how many women have been trafficked here that the authorities have no idea about? How many women have been victims of trafficking and no one has heard their stories?

While the government has had difficulty adapting to identifying new patterns of sex trafficking, it has also completely ignored a vulnerable group of individuals in need of rehabilitation: asylum-seekers who were victims of trafficking and torture in camps in the Sinai.

While a small group of about 300 recognized TIP survivors who went through the Sinai receive protection and rehabilitation services for a year; the vast majority, about 4,000 torture survivors who did not work for their traffickers and therefore are not entitled to be recognized as TIP survivors, receive no protection at all, no access to treatment and or rehabilitation services and are exposed to arbitrary detention.

During 2015 the Anti-Trafficking Police Unit recognized only 27 men, all Eritreans as TIP survivors. Almost half of them were identified and referred to them by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. There are thousands of others who sit in Israel, many in prolonged detention, being held captive again, without proper psychological or physical care, which is due to them under International and Israeli law

We celebrate our independence and freedom, but hopefully our celebrations will turn into commitments not just to us as a Jewish people, but to everyone who experiences the chains of affliction.