(photo credit: AP)
Activists working against human trafficking in Israel called on Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch this week to reconsider a move to scrap visa requirements for visiting Russians, fearing the change could increase the flow of illegal sex workers into the country.
"I understand that it will increase globalization and strengthen Israel's economy," Rita Chaikin, the anti-trafficking project coordinator of the grassroots Isha L'Isha - Haifa Feminist Center, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. "I also understand that Russian tourists need to come in and visit, but the minute we open the borders, we have to be prepared [for the possibility] that trafficking will increase."
The abolishment of Russian tourist visas - a move that the Tourism Ministry claims will add tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue to the Israeli economy within the next few years - was approved last month by the cabinet and is now in the final stages of implementation. It will also allow Israelis to visit Russia without visas.
However, Russia is considered a transit destination for trafficking operations, with many men, women and children from neighboring countries arriving there before being transported elsewhere.
Egypt has no visa requirements for Russian visitors, and its border with Israel is considered to be a main entry point for human traffickers.
A spokesman for Aharonovitch told the Post zthat the minister was aware of the problems of human trafficking in Israel and that the issue needed to be tackled; however, he added that there was little connection between the trafficking and the cancellation of visa requirements for Russian visitors.
He also said that the number of women arriving from Russia was much lower than those from other countries and that countries with border policies stricter than Israel's still had to contend with women and men being smuggled in for illegal work purposes.
However, Chaikin countered that "a legitimate Russian passport can be obtained quite easily," pointing out that the women are not necessarily from Russia, but coming through Russia from other countries in the Former Soviet Union block and Eastern Europe.
"Its like the [Tourism] Ministry was born yesterday," she continued. "They should really do their research and check the field before making such decisions. They have only thought about the financial benefits."
According to the US State Department's 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), which was released last June, Israel has made efforts to prevent such activities, but still "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking."
In the 2006 report, Israel was listed on the Tier 2 (Watch List) category - one level before the US imposes sanctions on a country. Russia currently appears in the same category.
"We need to be ready to go back to that [level of problems]," continued Chaikin. "Our status has improved, but if this [visa] change is not properly monitored, we could end up back where we were."
Although she believes it is most likely too late to prevent the visa change from going ahead, Chaikin said the government must still take steps to continue fighting human trafficking.
"Now there need to be even better checks of people entering the country, and closer attention must be paid to groups of young women traveling here," she said, adding that advertisements were needed to raise public awareness and to advise slave trade victims on where to receive help if they needed it.
Government-appointed attorney Rachel Gershoni, the national coordinator in the battle against trafficking, refused to comment on the pending visa arrangement between Israel and Russia.