Photo: Shula Keshet

Over the years, the patterns of human trafficking in Israel have changed: in the 1990s, most of the trafficking was of women brought over from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) for sex work. Following activism of human rights organizations, Knesset members and eventually the Israeli Police, this phenomenon has been eliminated almost entirely. These days, most human trafficking victims are migrant workers who’ve been held and employed in slavery-line conditions and survivors of the torture camps in Sinai.

Non-governmental organizations first recognized the phenomenon of human trafficking in Israel in 1997, with the publishing of a first report on the subject by the Women’s Lobby in Israel. Public advocacy and media campaigns of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in 1999 and 2000 along with an Amnesty International report published in 2000 were unsuccessful is getting authorities to recognize the problem, although the same year the Knesset passed a law against the trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution. Israeli authorities began recognizing that there is a problem only after the U.S. State Department placed Israel alongside Pakistan and Bahrain in Tier 3 of the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report in 2001 – the lowest possible level, indicating that Israel is doing nothing to combat human trafficking within its borders. That year and the coming years, most of the trafficking victims were women from FSU who were trafficked into Israel for the sex trade.

Following the criticism of the State Department and public and legal activism by human rights organizations, in 2003 a law was amended to provide trafficking victims with legal representation by the State, and in 2004, a shelter for female human trafficking victims was established. In 2005, following pressure by human rights organizations, the trafficking victims were given the right to work while they await to testify against their traffickers, as well as a year of recovery in Israel after the testimony is given. In 2012, again due to activism of human rights organizations, TIP victims were granted access to medical services as they await trial and during the year of recovery.

Between 2002 and 2011, due to the dramatic improvement in the way Israeli authorities handled the trafficking of women from FSU, Israel was listed in Tier 2 of the TIP report, except in 2006 when Israel was put on notice as facing downgrading to Tier 3 (2WL) in the report due to the an increase in the number of trafficking and slavery victims among migrant workers in the agricultural and construction sectors. The trafficking in women for prostitution has been nearly eliminated but prostitution in Israel still exists – instead of TIP victims, the women working in the sex trade in Israel today are Israeli women, many of them  immigrated to Israel from the FSU under the Law of Return. These women were forced into this horrific trade due to their inability to support themselves and sometimes their children doing any other kind of work.

As stated, along with the drastic improvement in the authorities’ handling of trafficking of women for prostitution, there was a noticeable deterioration in the situation of trafficking and slavery victims among migrant workers “imported” to Israel to perform jobs Israelis are unwilling to do for low pay. In 2006, Israel’s law forbidding the trafficking of women for sex work was amended to include a ban on trafficking men and women for the purpose of enslavement, trafficking in babies and trafficking in organs. In 2007, Israel established a shelter for male victims of TIP, which allowed to rescue agricultural workers who were employed and kept is slavery-like conditions from their abusive employers. Those trafficking victims, identified mostly by the labor rights NGO Kav LaOved, were placed in the shelter until they testified against their employers and then given a year of recovery.

In 2009, asylum-seekers, mostly from Eritrea but also from Sudan and Ethiopia, began arriving in Israel after surviving torture by Bedouin smugglers in Sinai. Although it was clear that the survivors are victims of human trafficking and slavery, it took a great deal of effort by the Hotline and other human rights NGOs to make the State recognize them as ones. Unlike in the case of migrant caregivers or agricultural workers, not only the victims are foreign nationals, but their captors and traffickers are also foreigners and the crime was perpetrated outside Israel. Only in late 2009, the shelters financed by the Ministry of Welfare began accepting survivors of the Sinai torture camps, and only a year later, the Ministry of Justice began recognizing them as TIP victims and providing them with legal aid. Even today, despite the intensive efforts of the Hotline and other human rights organizations, the Ministry of Interior does not grant visas to recognized TIP victims from Sinai, although the only thing different about them compared to other trafficking victims is the color of their skin.

In early 2011, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants uncovered a new pattern of human trafficking: Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Filipino workers were invited to Israel with a maritime crew visa and were employed in fishing against the law and in slavery conditions. During 2011-2013, the Hotline assisted 14 trafficking victims to escape the boats on which they were employed for 24 hours per day in harsh conditions. Although eight of the victims were accepted in the shelter for TIP victims, the company that brought the workers continues to employ fishermen against the law and in harsh conditions.