Yes to fighting human trafficking

But let's not neglect offenses committed systematically against migrant and other workers in Israel.

Sex ad 298.88 (photo credit: )
Sex ad 298.88
(photo credit: )
Trafficking in people is a contemporary form of enslaving human beings. In the past few years it has become one of the most important concerns in any discussion of human rights. Initially, concern over trafficking was restricted to women transported from poorer to richer countries in order to be exploited by the sex industry. Today, trafficking in persons is a term applied also to workers who are relocated in order to work in situations of slavery or forced labor. The precise definition of trafficking in persons varies. Those of the UN, US and EU are close, but not entirely identical. Recently adopted Israeli legislation is somewhat different. But in broad terms trafficking occurs when a person is transported from one place to another, is defrauded concerning the circumstances of his or her situation at the point of destination, and is coerced to perform some work or service. Means of coercion include, among others, violence, threats and confinement. Trafficking has become the focus of much international effort over the past few years. Both the US government and the EU, as well as various international bodies, make efforts to curb this lucrative form of the slave trade. Efforts are international, because trafficking is by definition a border-crossing phenomenon. In today's Israel, too, these international efforts are felt strongly. The US State Department rated Israel's campaign to prevent trafficking last year as so inadequate that lack of improvement would jeopardize foreign aid. Such pressure is part of the incentive for recent Israeli legislation against trafficking in persons for forced labor. ANTI-TRAFFICKING efforts include a strong emphasis on prosecution. Traffickers must be caught and punished if trafficking is to be curbed. But here lies a problem. For trafficking to take place, the agent arranging for the transportation of a victim must be at least tacitly aware that the victim might suffer fraud and forced labor or sexual exploitation. There is obviously a victim, but unless the various elements of the crime can somehow be linked, this crime does not fall under the definition of trafficking. The crime remains nameless, and perpetrators' prosecution is not a priority within international efforts to fight trafficking. Protecting victims, therefore, cannot be confined to prosecution of some combined offense. To fight trafficking one must take a broad approach and fight fraud, forced labor and sexual exploitation in the context of legal and clandestine migration alike. Trying to prevent those cases which combine the three components of trafficking (transportation, fraud and coercion) is like trying to prevent occasions of people being mugged and run over while crossing the street, without treating each component of the problem (mugging, crossroad safety and traffic accidents) by itself. It is like trying to treat the tips of several icebergs as one problem, while ignoring the huge chunks of ice lurking underneath. MOREOVER, AS the focus of trafficking prosecution is often the agent responsible for transporting victims, trafficking in persons has become an excuse for some countries to implement harsh immigration policies. Such policies undermine the rights of people who live in formerly colonized countries to integrate themselves into Western prosperity - prosperity which robbing these countries helped produce in the first place. Anti-trafficking policies, in themselves highly commendable, may serve to reinforce the darker side of globalization under a guise of protecting human rights. Now I am all for fighting trafficking in persons. I applaud the new Israeli legislation, and I hope to see this offense prosecuted in court. But I believe that trafficking is a rather ill-thought framework for protecting human rights, especially in the Israeli context. My fear is that in order to appeal to those bodies which encourage international anti-trafficking activities, Israeli enforcement will concentrate on cases where the transportation-fraud-coercion trio takes place, while neglecting the much more common cases where more limited offenses are committed regularly and systematically against migrant and other workers in Israel. Furthermore, a focus on prosecution may mean that prevention and protection of victims will be set aside as a non-issue. THE NEW Israeli legislation should indeed be applauded for creating a framework where various offenses can be prosecuted separately, without committing prosecution to the special cases where a string of crimes coincide to form a case of trafficking. But it is not at all clear whether these new laws will be put to any use. Experience shows that many relevant existing laws, which could have already protected victims, have been left dormant or completely ignored. Trafficking in persons must be fought, but as part of a larger reality of predominant local (and global) disregard for worker and human rights. For anti-trafficking work to succeed, it must be integrated into a well-entrenched policy of protecting the rights of disadvantaged laborers and of people at heightened risk of abuse. The tip-of-the-iceberg approach dominant today, which is embedded, especially in Israel, in a prejudiced and exploitative anti-migration discourse, might serve to trim the edges of a deep-rooted evil, and embellish deeply rotten reality. A victim-based approach, concerned with justice and blind to ethnicity, is the only way out of slavery and into dignity and freedom for all. The writer is a board member of Kav LaOved, the worker's rights hotline, and lectures at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa.