Sheetrit to get tough on foreign workers

Says crackdown will help fight trafficking; activists want more.

sheetrit 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
sheetrit 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
The most effective way to fight human trafficking in Israel is to crack down on the number of foreign workers entering the country and for the Interior Ministry to take over the responsibility of the immigration police. Those were the main points raised Wednesday by Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and his director-general Aryeh Bar, during a stormy session of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers and the Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women. Both Sheetrit, who threatened to walk out if non-government groups continued attacking his ministry's policies, and Bar glossed over the meeting's main agenda - providing asylum to the victims of human trafficking - highlighting instead what they believed were the best ways to tackle the phenomenon in general. "There are thousands of illegal workers coming into Israel all the time," Sheetrit told those gathered, referring specifically to the influx of Sudanese refugees via Israel's border with Egypt. "Out of 10,000, only about 600 are actually from Darfur; the rest have just lived in Egypt for years and are looking to improve their address. My job is to prevent all these people from coming in," he continued, outlining proposals such as issuing all Israeli citizens with biometric identity cards and passports, creating special visas in the country of origin for all migrant workers and forcing employers to pay social benefits for their workers, with the money being released when the worker's visa expires and he or she leaves the country. Bar echoed Sheetrit's tough stance, adding that a government decision to transfer the Immigration Police to his office's authority, creating a National Immigration Authority, had been taken several years ago but nothing had yet been actualized. "It should be implemented within the next year," he told The Jerusalem Post following the meeting. "The Interior Ministry is responsible for those entering and leaving the country; it seems only logical that those monitoring this process are brought under our authority." Bar said he would meet with NGOs to look into the visa issue for victims of trafficking for both prostitution and forced labor. However, activists from several anti-trafficking and foreign workers' organizations expressed great disappointment with Sheetrit and Bar's failure to directly address the problems surrounding the procedure of issuing temporary asylum and rehabilitation services to those who had fallen victim to trafficking in Israel. Rita Chaikin, anti-trafficking project coordinator for Isha L'Isha-Haifa Feminist Center, said that "Interior Minister [Sheetrit] gave us the feeling that we had gone back in time." Chaikin had called on Sheetrit to change the process whereby female victims of trafficking are deported because of the consequences they faced in their home countries. The organization also wants the ministry to broaden its definition of who qualifies for a temporary rehabilitation visa, highlighting that many women who had been victims in the past no longer qualify. Hotline for Migrant Workers lawyer Adi Vilinger said that the one-year period for the rehabilitation process was, in many cases, not long enough for people who had experienced extreme suffering. Sheetrit's outburst followed the remarks of Leah Gruenpeter-Gold from the organization Machon Toda'ah (Trafficking Awareness Center), who called the ministry's policies towards victims of trafficking "Kafkaesque." "The Interior Ministry has made great efforts to deal with this on a humanitarian level. Why do I have to put up with this [criticism]?" he complained. Attorney Rachel Gershoni, Israel's national coordinator in the international battle against trafficking, explained that while a fairly successful process exists for victims of trafficking for prostitution, the problem is when the cases are more complicated. "In those instances, the criticism [by NGOs] is that the ministry is inflexible," she said. Gershoni also pointed out that lack of a formal written procedure regarding victims of forced labor or any form of assistance to help them find alternative employment here were other "burning" issues. MK Ran Cohen (Meretz), chairman of the Committee on Foreign Workers, apologized for Sheetrit's rant against the NGOs but said the fact that the minister did not immediately walk out of the meeting was a positive step. "The criminals who bring these people to Israel are Israelis," he surmised. "The [foreign workers] are victims and Israel needs to give them protection and shelter." MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), chairwoman of the Sub-committee on Trafficking in Women, concluded: "We are moving in the right direction but there are still some points that need to be addressed, such as people who come into the country legally and suddenly find themselves illegal. We are asking that the ministry find a humanitarian way to deal with them."