(photo credit: AP)
Trafficking in human beings for the purpose of slave labor and prostitution is a serious threat to Israel's national security, US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones told a joint session of the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers and the Subcommittee on the Trafficking in Women Monday.
"Once the channels of trafficking [humans] have been established then they can easily be used to smuggle drugs, arms and even terrorists into the country," Jones warned those gathered at the meeting, including representatives of the Justice, Interior, Welfare and Social Services ministries, as well as law enforcement officials and non-governmental organizations.
Jones presented the committee with the findings of the US State Department's 2007 annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), which was published in June. Israel was placed in the Tier 2 category of countries who have made efforts to combat trafficking in human beings but have yet to fully comply with the minimum requirements of the US State Department.
Israel's standing slightly improved on the previous year, when it was placed on the report's Tier 2 Watch List, which is just one level higher than the lowest - countries that completely refuse to comply with the State Department's requirements.
Israel's elevation to Tier 2 and off of the watch list was due in part to legislation passed in the Knesset last October, which broadened the definition of human trafficking and outlined stiffer punishments for those caught trafficking humans, explained Jones. However, Israel needed to make a greater effort to actually prosecute the perpetrators and increase awareness among the victims of their rights, he added.
"Israel has made significant progress in combating trafficking into the country but there are still many steps that can and should be taken to improve the situation," Jones said, adding that he hoped by the time of next year's report Israel would be elevated to the optimum Tier 1 status.
"I believe that Israel not only has to make every effort to reach Tier 1 by next year, it actually has no choice but to make it there," MK Ran Cohen (Meretz), chair of the Foreign Workers Committee, told The Jerusalem Post following the meeting. "I think that with all the pressure from politicians interested in this subject we have a good chance of getting there."
Jones pointed to the appointment in June 2006 of Rachel Gershuni, Israel's inter-office liaison on trafficking in persons, as another step in the right direction.
A lawyer by training, Gershuni presented to the committee some of the efforts initiated over the past year, including an agreement with Thailand to ensure basic conditions for workers arriving here. She also said that her department would use the TIP report to evaluate activities in other countries around the world, including leveraging private companies to combat trafficking. Israel's national airline carrier El Al is one example of a company that could be utilized to disseminate information to foreign workers coming into Israel, said Gershuni.
Among other activities to be put in motion in the coming months, Gershuni described the establishment of safe houses countrywide for foreign workers and prostitutes who fall victim to trafficking or slave labor conditions and increased legal assistance for those victims to prosecute their former employees.
Another issue that was raised in the meeting was the handing out of visas to victims of trafficking who want to stay in Israel following their ordeal.
MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), head of the Subcommittee on the Trafficking of Women, said a firm policy should be established by the Interior Ministry to issue visas to all foreign nationals that have been enslaved in Israel either for purposes of labor or prostitution. Currently, the ministry assesses each case individually and hands out visas as a humanitarian gesture.
A representative of the Interior Ministry's Population Registry said, "When it has been determined the person is a victim we usually do not have a problem handing out the [required] visas. Our staff has started to undergo training to identify such victims."
"Trafficking in humans is not only a threat to our national borders," Gal-On said. "Fortitude is also measured by how a country protects is weakest people."
Jones ended the meeting by calling on all governmental bodies and NGOs to work together to eliminate trafficking completely from our society.
"Just as traffickers use networks to transfer people around the world, so do governments need to establish networks to prevent or eliminate such exploitation," he said.
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