Earlier this week, the Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT), a local non-profit organization dedicated to fighting modern slavery in Israel, held an awareness raising program for Jerusalem's English-speaking community at the Pardess Institute.
The event, intended to motivate citizens to speak out, included a brief presentation about human trafficking, ideas for activism and initial activist training for the participants.
According to TFHT, Israel is a destination country for human trafficking and an unknown number of both women and children are brought into the country every year to be exploited as modern-day slaves. Government sources claim that some 3,000 women and children are trafficked every year, while volunteer and non-profit organizations offer estimates that are significantly higher.
TFHT further estimates that over 80% of the women involved in the sex industry in Israel are victims of human trafficking. Nearly all of the victims in Israel come from the eastern bloc of the former Soviet Union where women are desperately seeking an escape from poverty and destitution. Source countries include Moldova, Uzbekistan, Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.
They cross into Israel over the border with Egypt, transported across the Sinai desert and into Israel by a network of Beduin smugglers. Once in Israel, victims are often sold and resold to pimps and brothel owners who force them to work in slave-like conditions.
At every stage in the process, the victims are abused and exploited, often suffering severe beatings, rape and even starvation.
Attorney Yedida Wolfe, co-director of the TFHT, contends that Israel has made only limited progress in the fight against human trafficking.
"In 2001, Israel was given the lowest possible ranking for its efforts to combat trafficking and was threatened with economic sanctions (by the US State Department). Since then, Israel has passed a law providing mandatory sentencing for traffickers and the Knesset has convened ongoing meetings of a special Inquiry Committee on the subject of trafficking in women. Recently, Prime Minister Olmert appointed an inter-office liaison to coordinate between government offices and between them and NGOS. "The Prime Minister also appointed an inter-ministerial cabinet committee to address the issue, but - and here is one of the best reason to enlarge the civil activity towards this issue - the committee has met only once," she concludes.
In the most recent report, Israel's position was only slightly improved.
"Each and every one of you can help in the fight against human trafficking by speaking out against this injustice," declared Moriah Cohen, an official with the TFHT.
"Whether it's to public officials or just to your friends - spreading the word is critically important to the battle."
She continued, "There are so many myths and misconceptions about human trafficking in Israel. Our goal is not only to dispel these myths but to teach others how to dispel them as well."
To fulfill that goal, much of the program focused on the most prevalent myths and the proper information needed to dispel them.
Yedida Wolfe has gathered together and articulated most of these myths, which she presented in an organized and clear manner:
Myth: These women make good money. I wouldn't mind having that kind of income!
Fact: Trafficking is modern slavery. The only money makers are the traffickers and pimps. During their first months of "work," most trafficking victims earn nothing. All profits are passed along to the pimp and trafficker, to repay the cost of their "purchase". Even after they succeed in repaying this debt, women receive only NIS 20 on average per client, while their pimps take in between NIS 100-600.
Myth: She knew exactly what she was coming for, what right does she have to complain now?
Fact: Many victims may think that they are coming to Israel to work as prostitutes - but they are wrong! They are coming to be exploited as sex slaves. The majority of trafficking victims did not work as prostitutes in their home countries.
Myth: She can get up and leave whenever she wants.
Fact: The trafficking victim cannot say no. Victims are held in bondage by pimps and traffickers who use threats and violence to prevent their escape. Victims also feel that they have nowhere to turn. Most believe that they will be prosecuted as illegal aliens and put in prison if they turn to the police.
Myth: Trafficking only happens in the seediest of places. The brothels I know would never exploit women that way.The overwhelming majority of prostitutes in Israel, including those involved in "escort services" and the pornography industry, are trafficking victims.
Myth:There is nothing that I can do about it.
Fact: Everyone has the power to help stop this atrocity.
Using the right terminology is critical to both understanding the issue and fighting back, TFHT officials emphasize. In their promotional materials they write, "Avoid neutral words and terms that legitimize the practice: Avoid words like 'prostitute' and 'client' and emphasize words such as 'sex slave' and 'exploitation.'"
"People often wonder what private citizens can do to help counter such a terrible injustice," Wolfe told the assembled audience. "The success of this event is a tribute to the fact that all you need to make a difference is a little bit of time and a lot of commitment. The entire event was planned, organized and run by a team of volunteer interns whose activist spirit is refreshing and contagious. Because of their efforts, there are now dozens more people trained and capable of speaking out against modern slavery.
I hope that their message and spirit of activism will reach many more."
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