Anti-trafficking activists expressed doubt Wednesday over claims made by Interior Minister Eli Yishai that canceling visa requirements from Ukraine would likely increase human trafficking or prostitution in Israel.
Following statements made this week by Yishai - who called Ukraine a center of prostitution - Amnesty International Anti-Trafficking Adviser Gal Harmat Ben-Meir told The Jerusalem Post that "even with current visa requirements it is not too difficult for those involved in trafficking to bring women into Israel."
Also an adviser to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) on trafficking activities in Moldova and Belarus, Harmat Ben-Meir said that arguing over visa requirements was not the way to reduce such activities.
"Eli Yishai fights over visas but does nothing to fight trafficking itself," she charged, adding that more needed to be done to prosecute those facilitating the sex trade, including clients who utilize such services.
"I believe most people who want to come here from Ukraine do so because they are visiting family members and not because they want to stay here and work in the sex industry," added Harmat Ben-Meir, pointing out that Ukraine was no longer considered a main center for trafficking operations but nearby Moldova and Belarus were.
In addition, she also noted that since visa requirements from Russia - another center for human trafficking - to Israel were cancelled just over a year ago, there had not been an increase in such activities.
Rather, the easing of entry requirements for Russian citizens visiting Israel, which has greatly boosted tourism from that country, is exactly the reason the debate over dropping entry restrictions from Ukraine was ignited this week.
A spokesman for Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov told the Post that visits to Israel by Russian tourists had increased by 84 percent after visa requirements were eased in 2008 and by a further 12% this year, bringing the total number of visitors from Russia up to 400,000. This was a great boost for Israel's tourism industry in a year when overall tourism figures had slumped, he said.
Both the Israel Hotels Association and Israel's Incoming Tour Operators Association sent letters Tuesday to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Yishai urging them to consider canceling tourist visas from Ukraine based on the success of the Russian model.
The matter was meant to have been discussed last Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting, however protests from Yishai meant it was postponed to this coming Sunday.
A spokesman for Yishai said Wednesday that the minister's concerns were based on information provided by the Public Security Ministry last year when the issue of canceling visas for Russian tourists was being debated.
"At the time, the Public Security Ministry said that Ukraine was much more a problem than Russia because it is the source of trafficking in women," he told the Post, adding that the minister insisted on creating an inter-ministerial committee to discuss the matter properly before allowing it to come up for a direct vote in the cabinet.
"These comments were made by [then Public Security Minister] Avi Dichter last year," responded Meseznikov's spokesman. "It is a shame that a minister bases his judgment on out of date [information ]that is not exact."
However, the Justice Ministry's Rachel Gershoni, who coordinates the government's efforts in the battle against trafficking, told the Post that officials in her ministry were also concerned by the proposal to cancel visa requirements from Ukraine.
"It used to be a central country involved in trafficking operations and even now it is on the US State Department's [Trafficking in Persons report] watch list," she said. "That is very problematic."
"Russia was never a central country involved in trafficking and that is the main difference," added Gershoni, highlighting that combating such criminal activities needed to be focused on three main areas: prosecution of the perpetrators, protection for the victims and prevention, namely securing the borders so that such women cannot be brought into the country.