In June, Israel’s police commissioner, Yochanon Danino, announced the dissolution of Sa’ar, a unit that specializes in cases dealing with the exploitation of foreign workers and refugees along with other issues related to migration and human trafficking.
In response, a special committee hearing was called by MK Orit Zuaretz, head of the subcommittee against human trafficking. All in attendance, including government representatives and numerous NGOs, opposed the decision to dismantle the only law enforcement agency equipped to deal with these increasingly important issues.
Following a petition filed by MK Zuaretz and NGOs Kav La’Oved and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch summoned Danino to explain his decision, one that is clearly regressive in the face of Israel’s new immigration dynamics.
Toward the end of the 1990s, Israel became one of the top destination countries for human trafficking, particularly for purposes of forced prostitution. Women from newly independent post-Soviet countries were brought to Israel by the hundreds to work in what became a brazen sex industry. Held captive without rights, these women were nothing short of modern slaves. In 2000, the U.S. State Department ranked Israel alongside Cambodia as one of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders.
Thankfully, the situation improved significantly over the past decade as police, MKs, and NGOs prioritized the issue. The Inter-Ministerial Committee Against Human Trafficking was formed alongside the Sa’ar unit with the goal of getting this issue under control. Trafficked women were identified and provided with medical assistance, legal aid, and diplomatic assistance to return home.
In 2004 alone, over 900 women were returned to their families. This was due to the successful cooperation of NGOs, the government, and the police.
Though Israel’s progress is commendable – and has been recognized by the international community – trafficking still exists in Israel. There are also a quarter-million foreign workers in Israel who do not enjoy basic civil rights or humane work conditions and are, therefore, vulnerable to exploitation.
Because closing one avenue for human trafficking will not immediately dismantle the lucrative trade, the problem requires renewed attention and vigilance. Robust and focused policing coupled with the promotion of rights and protection for the victims are paramount for addressing these issues appropriately.
While we should all be proud of Israel’s progress in combating human trafficking, we must realize our work is far from over. It is essential that a specialized Israeli police unit be tasked with understanding the trends, closing the borders and protecting the victims.
The urgency with which the Supreme Court is attempting to reverse the decision on the Sa’ar unit is not only an appropriate course of action but a critical one. We have a moral, political and legal duty to help end human trafficking in Israel and around the world, and we must not rest until the battle is won.
Kayla Zecher is projects coordinator for ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking (www.atzum.org).