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Israeli human trafficking rises

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The Interior Ministry unit responsible for locating victims of human trafficking has not found a single person being trafficked for forced labor or sexual exploitation, although a 2004 government estimate put the number of victims of human trafficking between 2,000 and 3,000. A report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, which conducts research for legislators, indicates that the ministry's Oz unit is the government body responsible for reducing human trafficking. But the authorities are not doing enough to reduce "modern-day slavery," said Hanny Ben-Israel, a lawyer for the workers advocacy group Kav La'Oved.

 "Treatment of the matter is insufficient, due primarily to a lack of awareness that this is a serious criminal offense," she said. "A failure to locate victims shows only that the unit is disconnected from what's happening on the ground, and when someone doesn't know what he's supposed to be looking for, it's no surprise that he doesn't find it." Since the Oz unit was founded four months ago, to replace the Interior Ministry's Immigration Administration, it has not provided police with any information that could lead to a criminal investigation, making it difficult for the law-enforcement authorities to bring to justice those responsible for human trafficking. However, things may begin to change shortly. Starting next week, Oz unit members are scheduled to undergo training in how to identify victims of trafficking.

For now, though, the unit may be ignoring human trafficking even when its inspectors do come across it. "It's not just that they didn't find anyone, but that they even ignored a clear case of trafficking when they raided an escort service, arrested the women and deported them to Moldova," said Yonatan Berman, a lawyer for the advocacy group Hotline for Migrant Workers. "We offered to give the unit workshops on this issue, but we haven't received any response." Berman said his group alone receives dozens of complaints concerning human trafficking every year, adding, "It's clear that the situation is actually a lot worse than that." Indeed, the numbers may be on the rise. Ben-Israel said Kav La'Oved has recently been receiving more complaints than usual about human trafficking, which includes forced prostitution or sexual exploitation as well as what the U.S. State Department describes as "forced labor, including the unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, non-payment of wages, threats, and physical intimidation."

"We have recently encountered an uptick in complaints on the matter," she said. "It's a serious phenomenon, especially in agriculture. We recently dealt with a series of serious incidents involving laborers who were working 18 hours a day, their passports were taken from them, they were threatened, they worked without protection - really modern-day slavery." This year's State Department report on human trafficking classified Israel as a country whose government does not fully comply with the minimum standards required to eliminate human trafficking, but is "making significant efforts" to comply with those standards.

"Israel is a destination country for men and women trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation," the report says. "Low-skilled workers from China, Romania, Turkey, Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India migrate voluntarily and legally to Israel for contract labor in the construction, agriculture, and health care industries. ... Women from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and China are trafficked to Israel for forced prostitution, often by organized crime groups across the border with Egypt."

The report recommends that Israel significantly increase "prosecutions, convictions, and sentences for forced labor offenses, including the unlawful practice of withholding passports as a means to keep a person in a form of labor or service; increase investigations, prosecutions, and punishments of internal trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation; and extend comprehensive protection services to victims of forced labor."

While the Oz unit has 160 inspectors and a NIS 50 million annual budget, it has "focused solely on locating illegal aliens and dealing with them," said MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), who heads the Knesset subcommittee on trafficking in women. "Even though the unit was supposed to replace the Immigration Administration, including in everything related to locating and identifying trafficking victims, that hasn't been done," said Zuaretz. "Law enforcement in the field of fighting human trafficking requires the active inspection of employers," said Kav La'Oved lawyer Anat Kidron. "Such inspection is not being done to a sufficient extent, and therefore a significant number of the victims of trafficking are not being found." by: Dana Weiler-Polak, Haaretz
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