How democratic governments undergo change is an elusive question. As a rule, governments are slow-moving, heavy entities, somewhat akin to elephants. They take their time to recognize new phenomena and to react to them. On the other hand, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can be compared to mice, scurrying close to the ground with ears finely attuned to every change, and equipped with the speed to react almost instantly.
On a daily basis, a slow pace may not be such a bad idea. None of us would feel comfortable if governments leapt into action at the barest hint of change. But what factors coalesce to make governments change? What creates a situation where governments creatively address new problems?
Let’s look at how the Israeli government, as a living laboratory for social change, transformed its policies regarding the trafficking of persons. In this case, change occurred when pressures built from within and also from outside the government, and when people with knowledge and power insisted that government officials not retreat to an ineffective comfort zone.
Trafficking to Israel began in the 1990s when young women from the former Soviet Union were brought to Israel for the purpose of prostitution. When trafficking began, government agencies did not identify it as a new phenomenon, but rather classified the victims into known categories — as illegal entrants or foreign prostitutes.
Government reaction followed these classifications. Women were either deported or, on occasion, indicted for illegal entry or allied offences; they were not encouraged to tell their stories or to remain in Israel for testimony. Even when law enforcement was considered, it tended to be weak and halting, as a result of the ambivalence that characterized enforcement of prostitution offences in Israel.1 (footnotes on page 4)
Gradually trafficking was recognized as a new phenomenon, requiring different modes of enforcement, and the trafficked women were viewed as victims rather than as criminals or prostitutes.
The change was a function of internal and external pressures. Internally, the growth of the phenomenon and its severity were felt in police fieldwork. During the heyday of trafficking, 3,000 women a year were trafficked.2 They were bought and sold in public auctions, imprisoned in brothels, held in debt bondage, and their passports detained.3 This was beyond the previous scope of prostitution offences, leading to new police guidelines and the formation of an inter-ministerial committee to study the subject. The committee’s recommendations encompassed a wide range of multidisciplinary tools to address trafficking, including establishing shelters for trafficked women, heightening police enforcement, and establishing legislation to promote closing of brothels.
Externally, several nongovernmental organizations heightened public and government awareness. In addition, the 2001 U.S. Department Report on the status of trafficking in various countries documented that Israel was not conforming to the minimal standards or taking adequate measures to combat the problem. This sent shockwaves throughout the country and proved a potent agent for change.
And, finally, the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on Trafficking in Women provided an additional and forceful push, highlighting the issue, inviting key government spokesmen to account for their efforts, and promoting legislation that reclassified trafficking beyond the old categories of prostitution. It is instructive that this legislation was not initiated by government, but rather by a private member of Parliament. The change in awareness sparked a series of comprehensive steps designed to address trafficking in a focused manner. Among the most important steps were the following preventive measures:
- Heightened monitoring of borders
- Increased coordination among government agencies and NGOs
- National plans to address trafficking
- Ratification of international treaties
- Public information brochures distributed in countries of origin to warn women of the dangers of trafficking
In addition, several measures were proposed that address law enforcement issues. For example, legislation to criminalize trafficking for purposes beyond prostitution — including slavery, forced labor, and removal of organs — was enacted, which also established provisions to prosecute Israeli citizens who have committed trafficking offences abroad. Provisions to facilitate forfeiture of assets of crime, to establish a trafficking fund, to mandate minimum sentences, to accord protections for victims during the criminal procedure, and to give victims the right to legal aid were also established.
Among the measures to protect victims of trafficking are:
- a shelter for up to 50 victims of trafficking who will receive medical and psychosocial assistance and job retraining
- free legal aid for civil or administrative claims arising from the trafficking
- visas and work permits to trafficking victims for a period of one year for the purposes of rehabilitation
- waiving offences integral to the trafficking crime such as illegal entry
- assessing risk for victims if returned to their countries of origin
- compensating victims in criminal cases or civil suits
Today police estimate there are no more than a few hundred victims of trafficking for prostitution in Israel. In addition, the patterns of criminal activity have changed and victims are rarely held under inhuman conditions, as in the past. However, slavery and forced labor still occur, especially in the foreign-worker community, as does trafficking for organ removal.
Despite the progress, inertia continues to present a problem, and activists must remain vigilant to ensure that government agencies do not revert to old classifications, as when trafficking victims began returning to Israel and police indicted them for illegal entry, though policy had been formulated not to prosecute victims for crimes integral to the trafficking.
Israel has made great strides in its battle against trafficking through pooling the resources of the government and NGOs. While NGOs were the pioneers who first recognized the phenomenon and worked with the victims, government intervention has been essential in monitoring borders, vigorously prosecuting traffickers, allocating resources for legal aid, and various policy decisions, including visas and work permits for victims.
One of the most valuable lessons learned from this social experiment was how to foster cooperative work between the government and NGOs through pooling experience and information, and making use of the advantages of each body. In order to do so, it was necessary to overcome prejudices on both sides and in the words of an NGO activist in Moldova: “learn how to shake hands without a clenched fist.”email print