Tentative allies lead the Mideast anti-trafficking effort

Creative and determined: a program makes a difference

By JULIA ALTMANN/THE MEDIA LINE
August 13, 2019 01:57
Refugees in Israel

Refugees in Israel. (photo credit: screenshot)

Efforts to eliminate human trafficking, the scourge that according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, directly affects a staggering 24.9 million people worldwide, have seen significant improvement in 33 out of the 189 nations evaluated for the 2019 US State Department TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS REPORT.

While the 93 nations of the “Tier 2” category were evaluated as exerting mid-effort, and 22 countries lacked enough determination to rise above “Tier 3,” the fastidious determination of some 33 states was recognized with a “Tier 1” listing. For Middle East watchers, where trafficking remains rife and the danger to populations continues unabated, the inclusion of three of its populations – Bahrain, Cyprus and Israel – is recognized as a not unimpressive achievement in a region where talk can overtake action for seemingly endless generations.

Designations are based upon standards set by the United States Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act (TVPA).

For the state of Israel, those charged with the fight against human trafficking take pride not only in the recognition, but for reaching the top tier for the eighth consecutive year. [Note: ratings began in 2001.] The top-level placement also serves as a tacit acceptance of Israel’s three-fold strategic and tactical assessments and planning: to eradicate the phenomenon, assist victims of the crimes, and increase enforcement against offenders.

Israel’s battle against human trafficking was acute from the mid-1990s until around 2005, as thousands of women were “imported” to Israel and forced into prostitution by criminal groups. Most of the victims were women in their twenties who hailed from countries belonging to the former Soviet Union.

Many of the victims were made to believe they were coming to work as au pairs or house cleaners. Those who did know in general what was in store for them were unaware of the inhumane conditions they would be subjected to, including physical abuse, solitary confinement, and in order to insure their dependence on their captors, the withholding of their pay.

All of this time, efforts to end the national blight of trafficking remained inadequate as witnessed by the nation’s firm attachment to its “Tier 2” designation, even dipping to Tier 3 in 2001.  But when it came, the awakening was from within as those responsible for fixing the problem began pooling their efforts.

Ayelet Dahan, assistant to the national trafficking coordinator in the Israeli Justice Ministry, told The Media Line that, “We realized this was something that needed a lot of attention, and many government offices worked together to change the situation.”

This combined effort led to the passage in 2006 of Israel’s anti-trafficking law, the country’s first comprehensive legislation aimed at tackling the issue.

Since then, state-sponsored and -supervised shelters for victims of trafficking have opened across the country, and legal aid has been provided to victims. Anti-trafficking units in the police, as well as specialized prosecutors and investigators, were put in place due to what Dahan described as the “complexity and difficulty” of the issue. In addition, training has been provided to border control staff and Israeli consulates.

“These mechanisms have drastically changed the situation in the field,” Dahan said.

Additionally, bilateral agreements on worker recruitment were signed with several states to increase regulation and transparency, and decrease trafficking and exploitation.

“In the past, incoming people, with a lack of information about their legal rights, would pay high recruitment fees,” Dahan said.

Nevertheless, the latest report found there was still room for improvement. Notably, it found that the government penalized “trafficking victims among the irregular African migrant population for immigration and prostitution violations” and “implemented policies that exacerbated this population’s vulnerability to trafficking.”

One such policy is reflected in the 2017 “Deposit Law,” under which employers of asylum seekers are required to deduct 20 percent of a worker’s base salary and deposit it into a special account. The asylum seeker can only access the money upon his or her departure from Israel.

According to Shira Abbo, spokesperson for the Israeli NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the law has placed many members of this community in a precarious position.

“The majority of the community makes below minimum wage [NIS 5,300, or about $1,485, a month], which has greatly affected women, who in some cases feel forced to turn to prostitution,” she told The Media Line.

Abbo also highlighted that many Georgians and Ukrainians had been subjected to human trafficking in Israel as neither nationality requires a tourist visa to enter the country.

Nevertheless, despite remaining shortcomings in governmental actions, the State Department assessment confirms that Israel’s struggle to curb the crime appears to be working.

Meanwhile, as whispers of a new regional dynamic permeate the Gulf with tales of Sunni nations tearing down barriers to the Jewish state, Bahrain emerges as the Gulf State that most shares Israel’s determination to bring human trafficking under control.

Apparently, the kingdom’s leaders were disturbed by the continuous low ranking in the State Department report. In 2014, after its fourth consecutive placement on the Tier 2 “watch list,” officials assembled to try and get a handle on reasons for its annual failure to move up.

At that time, the decision was made to kick the matter over to Ausama Alabasi, who was then serving as CEO of the Labor Market Regulatory Authority, adding the chairmanship of the national committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons – an appointment hindsight clearly sees kindly.

Albasi told The Media Line that, “[Although] we started with a gap analysis to understand what we were doing wrong to reach such a low ranking, nevertheless the number one thing to do was to start admitting there is a problem and create a national consensus at the institutional level understanding that there is an issue which  needs to be addressed. We did a lot of work on the infrastructure and we set up a hotline manned by people who spoke ten languages. We didn’t know there was not a proper case management system. A lot of cases were not being documented. We created a hotline to a 200-bed shelter.”

According to Albasi, the most important task at hand was to establish the standard operating procedure that would choreograph and coordinate the entire country’s efforts.  It was this which led to Bahrain issuing the first National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in the Middle East and Arab world.

Albasi explained to The Media Line how important this step was for the business of combatting trafficking. “The NRM documents cases that showed us lots of vulnerabilities that may not [actually] be trafficking according to the legal system, but identified individuals who could easily become tragic victims of trafficking if not receiving assistance in time.”

This not only saved individual people who entered the system and were therefore able to receive help in time, but also – and of equal importance – allowed us to succeed in the all-important challenge of earning the confidence of the vulnerable within various migrant  communities which comprise as many as 50% of the Gulf States’ population.

Perhaps an unintended consequence, Albasi explained that only 34 cases out of 9,000 entered into the system was a human trafficking matter; the others related to those instances of vulnerability that would inevitably turn to victimization.

With assistance from the US State Department and the United Nations, Bahrain was elevated to Tier 2 and a year later became the first Arab nation to achieve Tier 1 status which it has held for two years. Secretary of State Pompeo provided personal commendation to Albasi in recognition of his efforts in changing procedure, laws and assistance given to the migrant community in Bahrain.

The UN meanwhile, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bahrain to assist in the building of a UN Office on Drugs and Crime training center for the Middle East and North Africa.

For more stories visit themedialine.org


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