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ISRAEL: People-trafficking gang uncovered

TEL AVIV, 12 March 2009 (IRIN) - The largest ever people-trafficking ring in Israel has been uncovered: Twelve members of the gang (all women) were arrested by police in Tel Aviv on 8 March following a two-year undercover operation.

The suspected traffickers are accused of smuggling hundreds of women from the former Soviet Union into Israel to work in the sex industry.

The main suspect, who is closely related to one of Israel’s so-called Mafia families, ran the network using scouts in places like Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. The young victims were taken in by promises that they could work in Israel as dancers or waitresses in night clubs. Several said they had endured extremely harsh and violent treatment.

They had crossed into Israel from Egypt in treacherous circumstances. Testimonies collected by NGOs working with trafficked women speak of rape and abuse by Bedouin smugglers on the journey.

They were further mistreated at the hands of their “owners” in Israel if they refused to work in the sex industry under stringent conditions: They were forced to work 30 days a month for no pay until the sum the pimps paid for them - which varied from person to person - was paid off.

According to a police press release, more than 2,000 women were trafficked by the Israeli gang into Israel and Cyprus over a two-year period.

Trafficked women still at risk

While the police take great pride in the operation, NGOs like Isha L’Isha and Atzum are concerned. Some NGO workers told IRIN their main worry was that the suspects involved would use any means at their disposal to harm the women who may have testified.

The police said they had recordings of the main suspect ordering physical punishment and even the murder of some of the women who refused to work as sex slaves, and have released the recordings to local TV channels.

According to the police, one of the women who had intended to testify was killed in a hit and run accident in Uzbekistan some months ago.

Israeli efforts

According to Attorney Naomi Levenkron, head of the trafficking department at Moked (a hotline for migrant workers), the Israeli authorities have made great efforts in recent years to decrease trafficking of women into Israel, cracking down heavily on brothels, strip clubs, escort services and the like, and offering protection to trafficked women willing to testify against the traffickers.

A 2009 UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report entitled Global Report on Trafficking in Persons said Israel, Turkey and Thailand are “ranked very high in the citation index as destination countries in the global comparison”; it also provides details of people trafficking in Israel with statistics and analysis based on the 2003-2007 period.

In 2006, according to UNODC, the number of trafficking-related cases investigated in Israel was 318, and in 2007 the number of victims of trafficking (all females) sheltered in Israel was 75.

In February 2004 Israel established Maagan, a shelter for trafficked women in central Israel, where the women receive treatment and vocational training. At present over 30 women are being sheltered there.

Israel also appears in the annual US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report, which said in 2008, however, that the country was making "significant efforts" to eliminate trafficking.

Rita Chaikin, a trafficked women’s project coordinator with the Isha L’Isha NGO, told IRIN: “We applaud the police for this important operation leading to the arrest of the 12 suspects. I hope the women involved in this case will not come to any harm. We also hope that the court will not be lenient towards the suspects and will also award compensation to these women for the suffering and damages they've endured.”

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Theme (s): Gender Issues, Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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