November 2000


A recent study by Amnesty International criticises Israel for failing to protect the human rights of women who have been trafficked into the country for the purpose of prostitution. The women are treated as criminals rather than as victims of international crime and exploitation.

By Lisa Delong

In a recent study published by Amnesty International (AI), Israel is harshly criticised for failing to protect the human rights of women who have been trafficked into the country for the purpose of prostitution. Israeli police statistics suggest that thousands of women have been brought into the country by organised criminal rings and forced into the sex trade. Because they are in the country without work permits, or have entered using false documents, they are considered to be illegal aliens and are treated as criminals rather than as victims of international crime and exploitation.

The treatment of trafficked women by Israeli authorities has been assessed by AI as the result of an ‘oversimplification of the situation of trafficking’. The women are considered to be an extension of organised criminal activity rather than victims of crime. Because of their illegal status in the country, they are detained in custody - sometimes for lengthy periods pending trial of traffickers or receipt of documents from embassies - and are then deported back to their home countries.

Many women are brought to Israel from nations where organised crime is rampant, and are highly fearful of retribution upon their return. Several cases outlined in the report demonstrate the inflexibility of the Israeli government in failing to offer protection for women during trials when they are called as witnesses, or in refusing to facilitate follow-up security upon deportation, such as allowing alternative routes for repatriation.

The government of Israel has expressed concern for the situation of trafficked women, and has responded to AI’s report by establishing a committee to examine the results of the study. The government has asserted the view that evidentiary difficulties endemic to sexual exploitation crimes, and the reluctance of trafficked women to testify against their captors are obstacles to the full protection of women.

Critics, however, suggest that the fact that the country is without a comprehensive government policy on the issue undermines the work of NGOs and government departments working to protect exploited women.

Israel is not unique in its apparent inability to protect women who have been trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. The AI report mirrors situations in many countries worldwide. As the sex trade grows at an alarming rate, governments are finding that they are unable to address the situation.

According to the UN Development Fund for Women, trafficking in women for prostitution is one of the fastest-growing organised criminal activities in the world, and follows, in frequency, only the trade in narcotics and weapons. The sex trade brings in $7-12 billion annually.

The United States State Department has estimated that over one million women are trafficked every year, primarily from economically unstable nations. Many women are abducted, but others are lured by offers of good working conditions and high salaries in the sex industry, or by false offers of employment entirely unrelated to prostitution.

Travel documents are confiscated so as to ensure they are unable to escape. The women frequently endure torture and imprisonment. Psychological trauma, disease and denial of health services are commonplace.

The UN has suggested that there is police complicity with traffickers in many nations, so women who report crimes are often returned to their abusers. Modern technology allows for captors to trace victims who flee, as some organised crime rings scan and electronically distribute photos of women who ‘belong’ to their syndicates.

Other countries have begun to take innovative steps in efforts to eliminate trafficking of women, and to implement protective programmes for those who have become victims of the sex trade. Italy has recently established a witness protection programme to help trafficked women denounce their exploiters, and has increased accessibility of work permits which would allow women to legally stay in the country.

India has begun to repatriate individuals from Bangladesh who have been trafficked from the country.  In Nepal,  a programme assisted by  the International Labour Organisation has former victims of the sex trade monitoring border crossings, watching for signs of trafficking. The United States Senate has recently passed a bill which proposes to increase penalties to traffickers, and give immigration relief for up to three years to allow victims to stay in the country and bring charges against their abusers.

A conference in Istanbul last year on trafficking of women concluded that international actions are needed to protect and repatriate or resettle victims. The recommendations made by AI to Israel include the need to review government procedures concerning trafficking, and to enhance existing legislation to punish traffickers and abusers.

Perhaps most importantly, the country is advised to take action to protect women who have been victims of these human rights violations, and to avoid exacerbation of trauma through detention and ill protection. If all nations were to review and ensure compliance with such recommendations, women everywhere could begin to hope for an end to the horror of the sex trade. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Lisa Delong is a research associate at Human Rights Internet.

The above article first appeared in Human Rights Tribune (Vol. 7 No. 2 & 3, September 2000).