Experts from the Middle East and North Africa met last week at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna to prepare an action plan to stamp out the growing problems of human trafficking and migrant smuggling.
The three-day symposium - the first of its kind - brought together representatives from Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen and Malta.
"This is the first meeting ever held to discuss a regional action plan for the Middle East/North Africa region," Muhammad Adul-Aziz of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime said. "We consider this meeting to be an important step forward. The proposed plan of action will provide member states with a framework for their future efforts to fight smuggling of migrants and trafficking in human beings."
A UN report in April said Israel was a top destination country for trafficking in human beings, and the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report, published in June, placed Israel in the Tier 2 (Watch List) category of countries whose governments do not fully comply with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act but are making significant efforts to do so.
"In the Middle East/North Africa region, exchange of information is complicated by heightened security concerns and tense diplomatic relations," said Israel's representative at the meeting, Yedida Wolfe. She is co-director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking - a project of the nonprofit organization ATZUM (Justice Works) and law firm Kabir-Nevo-Keidar.
"If there is a consensus on one thing, that is the need for bilateral cooperation to combat trafficking. Last week's meeting was a breakthrough in establishing personal cross-border contacts to help fight modern slavery," Wolfe said.
She said the action plan created at the meeting focused on three areas: prevention, which includes changes in legislature, increased policing on national borders and raising awareness; protection of the victims and providing them with access to services that will help them break away from traffickers; and increased prosecution of those facilitating the crimes.
Wolfe said the UN plan required the endorsement of the states involved. This was the next step in implementing the program, she said.
"I have high hopes that this meeting will form the basis of continued discussions," said Wolfe. "We really needed the UN to step in; some of the countries do not even publicly recognize trafficking as a problem."
Wolfe said one of the biggest problems for Israel was that the government relied solely on nongovernmental bodies for information and action.
"We've been petitioning the government to appoint one person in the establishment to deal with these issues," said Wolfe. "So far, there is no one."
The meeting is meant to be followed up by a high-level political conference in the spring of 2007, aimed at bringing together all the international stakeholders to endorse the plan.
According to a report released in 2005 by the Knesset Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women, between 3,000 and 5,000 women had been smuggled into Israel over the previous four years to work as prostitutes.
According to the report, the women, who were mostly from the former Soviet Union, were sold at public auction for as much as $10,000 and forced to work up to 18 hours a day. On average, the women received only three percent of the money they earned from prostitution, and many were raped and beaten. Most of the women had been smuggled over the Egyptian border.