Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in separate addresses on Sunday night at the annual awards ceremony recognizing people in the forefront of the battle to eradicate human trafficking.

Speaking at his official residence to an audience that largely consisted of human rights activists, Peres said that although slavery was made illegal in the 19th century, it has not been successfully abolished, but appears in a different guise.

No country in the world allows the legal buying and selling of human beings, yet there are informal criminal organizations that rule over and exploit the weak, said Peres. The victims usually come from backgrounds of economic or psychological hardship, he continued, and they are lured or coerced into prostitution, forced labor or extraction of organs from their bodies.

Modern slavery does not relate to people as human beings but as robots, said Peres, making them work long hours without respite or decent wages. The victims live under threat and are humiliated, subjected to violence and denied the basic right of freedom, he said.

Two female lawyers and a representative of Mesila, the organization founded by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai to deal with the day-to-day problems of immigrant workers, were recipients of this year’s awards. Shoshana Strauss, who is formerly from Los Angeles and heads the legal department of a government ministry, has been active in many issues related to foreign workers and initiated the publication of a brochure informing them of their rights. The brochure has been published in several languages.

Nomi Levenkron, another lawyer who directs a hotline for foreign workers and who has learned to identify and track down victims of human trafficking, was the second recipient, while the third was Tamar Schwartz on behalf of Mesila, who said that Huldai’s philosophy is that regardless of whether foreigners in his city were there legally or illegally, first and foremost they had to be treated as human beings and there had to be a 24/7 address that could help them deal with their problems.

According to statistics published by the United Nations, said Peres, each year 2.5 million people become victims in the crime of human trafficking, and more than half are minors below the age of 18.

Eighty percent are sexually exploited and abused.

It is important to remember that all human beings are created in the image of God, said the president, and that human dignity is one of the basic tenets of Israeli law.

He was proud of the fact that Israel is a signatory to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

He was even prouder of the fact that in a report recently published in the United States, Israel was ranked number one among the countries that are successfully combating this heinous crime.

Just saying the words “human trafficking” is a shocking form of expression, said Netanyahu, who like Peres, noted that it is a modern form of slavery that is often accompanied by violence.

It is not enough to find human traffic morally repugnant, declared Netanyahu. “It is something that requires aggressive action and legislation.”

There has been some change over the last five years, he acknowledged, stating that Israel has managed to keep out perpetrators as well as victims from abroad.

In the past year, not a single victim entered Israel, he asserted.

Human beings are not chattels, he insisted.

“We cannot accept the concept that half the population is the property of the other.”

Illegal immigrants, he added, have been amongst the most severely humiliated victims, and they have also been amongst the perpetrators.

The difference between slavery and freedom, he said, is sometimes the same as the difference between life and death.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman pointed to the many Biblical references that negate slavery, and said the Bible gives the highest priority to freedom of the individual.

“We thought that the phenomenon of slavery had disappeared, but it is prevalent worldwide including in Israel,” he said.

The suppression of human trafficking is high on the agenda of all the entities involved in the criminal justice system, said Neeman, who was pleased to report that many judges hand down the most severe sentences to defendants who have been found guilty of abusing, exploiting and humiliating other human beings.

Murder and rape are generally perceived as the worst crimes, he said, but the humiliation of human beings to the extent that they are deprived of any shred of dignity is far worse.

Neeman called for a united global effort to stamp out the crime of human trafficking.

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