Foreign women who are victims of trafficking can now get support at a special shelter - the Maagan shelter - in Tel Aviv dedicated to cater for their needs.
In 2002 the Israeli government, in an attempt to encourage these women to testify against the people who bought and sold them, decided to offer them work visas in return for sworn statements detailing their tribulations. The visas run until one year after the end of their trials.
About 250 of these women have been through the Maagan shelter in the last few years. Overall, several thousand have been trafficked into and within Israel since the 1990s, according to estimates.
Those who cooperate become eligible for rehabilitation through the shelter, which is funded by the Israeli Ministry of Welfare.
Earlier this year, the government changed its position, and agreed to offer a one year visa and rehabilitation to all women who could prove they were trafficked.
The work visas are vital for many of these women, who paid smugglers on average about US$4,000 to get to Israel in the hope of finding jobs, and need to recoup the fee and help their impoverished families. The women come mainly from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Moldova and other former Soviet states.
More often than not, experts say, the women were not aware they would become commercial sex workers. Many thought they were going to work in hotels, private houses or in the catering industry in Israel and other Middle East countries.
An additional tragedy, Rinat Davidovich, director of Maagan, told IRIN, is that some of these women end up in Israel more than once.
"If they are [arrested and deported] before they have managed to pay back the entire sum, they might be brought over again once they return to their homeland," she said, adding that the traffickers threaten their families and force them, once they are back home, to return for another round, until they pay back all the money.
Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
|Rinat Davidovich, the director of the Maagan shelter for trafficked women|
"I cannot imagine how hard it must be for a woman who already underwent such abuse to know she'll be subjected to the same ordeal again," she said.
The shelter, which opened three years ago, currently houses some 35 women and five children under three.
"The women receive different kinds of services at the shelter, such as medical help, social services, psychiatric and psychological services," Davidovitch explained.
Social workers say the women are almost always victims of abuse and neglect, both physically and mentally.
The trafficked women, who pledge upon entering the shelter not to work as prostitutes any longer, are able to find jobs as labourers, mostly working in restaurants, thanks to their work visas.
The downside to working in Tel Aviv is their exposure to the world outside the protective environment of Maagan. In many cases, the women's pimps are not arrested. They still operate and are able to locate and coerce them into returning to work for them.
The shelter also offers job training courses, to help the women find employment when they return to their native countries. Two women will attend a prestigious culinary school this year.
More work needed
Israel does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, a 2007 US State Department report said. However, it is making significant efforts to do so.
During the reporting period, Israel conducted 352 criminal investigations of sex trafficking, although only 13 individuals were convicted. An additional 43 trials were pending.
Although local activists mostly agree that Israel has progressed, they say it still has a long way to go before it can claim success.
"The prices [for sexual services] remain the same and the number of 'visits' [sexual encounters between sex worker and client] remain the same. Therefore, we believe that the same level of trafficking is being maintained," said Ronni Aloni Sadovnik, of Atzum, a non-governmental organisation which works to decrease human trafficking.
Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
|A view of the Maagan shelter for trafficked women in Tel Aviv|
Another major issue is determining who is eligible for the visa and rehabilitation.
"Some women are rescued from active brothels yet they do not receive visas, as the authorities claim they were merely pimped, not trafficked," said Sigal Rozen from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which recently published a report claiming that every month over a million prostitution acts are preformed in Israel.
Joining the shelter programme, however, is not a guarantee for success. "Many of these women come from abusive homes. This shelter is the first place they learn to trust other people" Davidovitch said.
Even so, some of the approximately 250 women who have passed through the shelter have disappeared.
"I want to think that they found a happy end, yet my experience tells me many were forced back into the sex trade or into abusive relationships, with men taking advantage of their fragile situation," she said.
Furthermore, the visas are temporary and eventually run out. If, when that happens, the women have not managed to pay back their debts or are unable to provide for their families back home, they are susceptible to being trafficked again upon returning home.
One woman currently residing in the shelter is there for the third time, Davidovitch said.