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Given the opportunity to rank Israel's performance in implementing Western standards on a given human rights issue, many Israelis would likely place it above countries such as Bosnia, Colombia and Tajikistan. After all, not only do Israelis take pride in Israel as the Jewish state, built on values Judaism has espoused for millennia such as human dignity and protection of the weak' but also as a bulwark of Western-style liberty and enfranchisement in a region of the oppressed.
Unfortunately, if the issue is human trafficking, those Israelis should think again.
The US State Department's sixth annual Trafficking in Persons Report, released Monday, placed Israel in the third of four categories used for rating foreign governments' efforts to eliminate human trafficking - behind the aforementioned countries and 102 more, including such beacons of human rights as Congo, Ethiopia, Niger and Yemen.
Worse still perhaps is being judged by the company we keep. In the same Tier 2 "Watch List" category in which Israel has been placed are Algeria, Cambodia, China and Egypt. Furthermore, Israel ended up with this unsavory bunch after being downgraded from its Tier 2 standing of the preceding year for "failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to address... the conditions of involuntary servitude allegedly facing thousands of foreign migrant workers," according to the State Department report.
The news is not entirely gloomy. The report states that while "the government of Israel does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking... it is making significant efforts to do so."
In particular, Israel has built upon its progress over the past several years in combatting the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation by prosecuting traffickers and providing victims with shelter and legal aid.
However, the State Department's assessment, along with April's UN report which found that Israel is among the top 10 destinations for human trafficking, must be perceived as an alarming wake-up call.
Dismayingly, despite the evidence, the Foreign Ministry responded to Monday's report by saying the problems are not "widespread," but then admitting, bafflingly, that foreign workers' rights are being disregarded and adding it would study the document and use it to help fight human trafficking.
The Interior Ministry, more reassuringly, said it would work with police to draft a strategy for combating the problem and present it to the government for approval within the next few weeks.
As a minimal starting point, the Interior Ministry should heed the State Department's advice.
Foremost is the need to correct the absurd state of affairs in which various forms of labor trafficking are not even a criminal offense.
In addition, foreign workers' rights should be protected by laws with teeth and by judges willing to adequately apply penalties that create a deterrent effect.
The government must also regulate the payment by foreign workers to recruitment agencies of up to $10,000 in up-front fees. The practice makes these workers, often coming from already-impoverished situations, acutely vulnerable to debt bondage once they arrive. If such fees must be imposed they should be deducted gradually from the workers' salaries.
The report also observes that there is not a single government-run shelter for victims of labor trafficking. Instead they are housed in detention facilities and receive no state-funded legal aid and often not even interpreters in judicial hearings.
Israel's efforts against human trafficking could also be improved by following the example of countries some Israelis would have dismissed for their human rights records.
Bosnia and Tajikistan have already established elite police anti-trafficking units. Colombia highlighted the issue by incorporating the story of a human trafficking victim into the plot of a popular soap opera, and a municipality in Ecuador placed stickers with anti-trafficking messages in local taxis.
For the sake of the victims and the Jewish values the state must uphold, the government cannot ignore Israel's rank ranking in fighting the phenomenon of human trafficking.
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