Israel scored two significant successes with the release of this year’s US State Department report on human trafficking, as the country moved up to the top tier recognizing government efforts to end trafficking, and a nun working in Israel was singled out for her work in the field.

Azezet Habtezghi Kidane, who is Eritrean but lives with her order in Jerusalem and volunteers with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, was one of just 10 individuals from around the world whom the State Department recognized Tuesday as an anti-trafficking “hero.”

She received the honor for her work recording and raising awareness regarding the plight of African migrants who have been tortured, raped and held for ransom by Beduin tribes in Sinai who smuggle them across Egypt to reach Israel.

Israel has provided medical care for those migrants who do cross the border, and Kidane praised the government for the treatment it gave those who made it into the country. But she said the government should do more to help these people after they were healthy, rather than “leaving them alone” as it does now.

Still, Israel has worked hard in the past five years to be more aggressive in stopping human trafficking, increasing enforcement and sentencing for perpetrators. Those efforts helped move Israel up one level to the report’s highest tier for the first time, for taking adequate steps to combat the phenomenon.

From the legislative level down to non-profit organizations working with victims of sex and labor trafficking to Israel, the annual report commended the country’s efforts to tackle the problem, including prevention and treatment for the victims.

“The Government of Israel fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” noted the 2012 report, released Tuesday afternoon. “The Israeli government sustained strong law enforcement actions against sex trafficking and strong overall prevention efforts during the year.”

Luis CdeBaca, the US ambassador- at-large for monitoring and combating trafficking in persons, praised Israel’s improvements and even called one of its policies a model that other countries should emulate.

“We’ve seen a lot of progress,” he told The Jerusalem Post, pointing to increased laws and enforcement.

He especially highlighted a Justice Ministry program seeking restitution for victims of trafficking.

“That’s something that we very much see as being on the leading edge,” he said. “That’s a best practice that we think other countries need to learn from.”

But he said there remained areas in which Israel could do better.

“We’re calling upon the government of Israel to look at their own situation. There’s been some cases in the last few years where you’ve had Israeli citizens as well as foreign nationals that have been abused,” he said.

Indeed, despite the commendations, the report highlighted some of the country’s weak points, including the lack of adequate places in treatment shelters for victims, and pointed out that the authorities relied too heavily on reports from NGOs instead of initiating its own investigations.

CdeBaca also said that when it came to how Israel dealt with the cases of African migrants whom Kidane identified in the Sinai and who then entered the country, “we want to make sure that there’s increasing improvement to identify victims of forced labor and of internal sex trafficking.”

He said the “zone of impunity” that had developed in the Sinai had led to some of the world’s worst crimes against trafficked people.

He described the past year as “challenging” for Egypt, but did note that the government had passed laws against human trafficking and that police and prosecutors had undergone training to combat the practice even as the country underwent tremendous upheaval.

Kidane said she hoped receiving the award Tuesday would help draw attention and international effort to combating what was happening in the Sinai. She said that first and foremost, the Egyptian government needed to take steps to end the abuse, but she also said the international community must pressure Egypt to do what was needed.

Her order assigned her to Israel a little over two years ago, and she wanted to use her ability to speak several African languages to help the migrants. In conversations with them, she began to hear horrific stories of torture and sexual abuse.

She was told that many migrants, who had scraped together a few thousand dollars to pay traffickers to help them reach Israel or European destinations, would be held captive in the Sinai and tortured and abused unless friends and relatives paid sums often 10 times as much as the original price.

“We heard things that we didn’t want to hear, that we didn’t want to know,” she said.

Kidane said she was accepting the award on behalf of these victims.

“I am celebrating for them more than for me,” she said, adding, “We need to stop what’s happening. People are suffering. People are dying. People are slaves.”

The TIP report is the most comprehensive worldwide study on the efforts of governments to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons, and its assessments are based on material collected from local government and non-government organizations.

It was first compiled in 2000, when Israel was placed in the lowest category. Since then, Israel’s status has improved due to increased legislation and the willingness of the authorities to recognize the problem.

While it spent one year, 2006, on the Tier 2 Watch List level, it has been ranked at Tier 2 since then for its continuing efforts to eliminate this form of modern-day slavery.

Guy Rothkopf, director-general of the Justice Ministry, which coordinates the country’s anti-trafficking efforts, said Wednesday that he was delighted that the government’s work was finally bearing fruit.

“First and foremost, we have brought a positive change in terms of trafficking prevention and also in providing assistance to the victims,” he said, commending the joint efforts of the Prime Ministers Office, the Knesset and NGOs.

Rothkopf also paid tribute to the country’s national coordinator for combating human trafficking, Rachel Gershuni, who has been the driving force behind many legislative and practical changes.

MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), chairwoman of the Knesset Sub-Committee on Human Trafficking, recognized that there was still more work to do in fighting against trafficking, but she welcomed Israel’s upgrade and the recognition from the State Department.

“Determination to combat this despicable phenomenon and improve enforcement activities has led to unprecedented results,” said the MK, who held a session in the Knesset Wednesday morning to discuss the report. “For many years, Israel was ranked in second place, despite efforts that we have made here especially to develop the cooperation between government agencies and human rights groups working the field. All of this has led to a noticeable change in the national assessment of the situation, detection and treatment of victims.”

Zuaretz has been active in recent months in preparing legislation that would make utilizing the services of a prostitute a criminal act. She believes that cutting off the demand for such services would also stem the supply of human trafficking victims into Israel and within Israel. The bill is currently making its way through parliament.

Ruth Eglash contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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