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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.4 (2004) 133-146

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Trafficking in Persons for the Purpose of Prostitution:

The Israeli Experience

The 1990s ushered in a new phenomenon in the migratory patterns to the state of Israel. Women began to be trafficked into Israel for the purpose of prostitution. Before this period, prostitutes were largely local women, with a smattering of foreign women who arrived by and large by their own initiative. With the opening of this new era, networks of criminals began to exploit the poverty and vulnerability of young girls to prevail upon them to journey to Israel in the hopes of earning enough money to support themselves and their families.

Israel is hardly unique in this respect. During recent decades, trafficking has emerged as a global scourge at the forefront of international concern. Since the criminals use improved global methods of communication and transport, enabling them to cross borders with greater facility than at any time in the past, the international community has recognized that the battle against them must be waged globally. This awareness gave rise to a series of international agreements and United Nations guidelines to combat trafficking on an international level.1 In addition, the US State Department [End Page 133] Report on Trafficking in Persons, evaluating the status of the battle against trafficking in 140 states, has succeeded in heightening the awareness of governments to the steps that must be taken.2

The word trafficking appears almost neutral; it places the emphasis on the moving of a human being from place to place. Its criminal nature is based on the illegal goals, such as sexual exploitation or prostitution and the means used to effect them, which usually include deception or force.3 In effect, trafficking is a modern form of slavery that uses people as objects, passing them from hand to hand like commodities and disposing of them when no longer needed.4 The heinousness of this practice lies in its violation of the essence of the human personality, in its taking away or severely limiting human choice, which is the moral basis that distinguishes people from other creatures.

In this essay, I endeavor to describe the reasons underlying the trafficking phenomenon, its characteristics, and the steps taken by the government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Israel to combat it. Since it is impossible to analyze trafficking without placing it in its global context, many of the processes and underlying causes referred to are common to the forms of trafficking worldwide.

While trafficking may be undertaken for a number of purposes such as slave labor, removal of organs, sexual exploitation, or prostitution, this article deals only with trafficking for the purposes of prostitution, as this form of trafficking is the most prevalent in Israel. [End Page 134]

The Underlying Causes of Trafficking

Trafficking feeds on poverty, lack of information, and naive hopes. It is particularly prevalent in source countries in which the social and economic safety nets that had previously existed have disintegrated, whether as a consequence of war or political unrest. This can lead to widespread poverty and the inability of entire segments of the population to support themselves. It can also result in the breakdown of traditional forms of social assistance. Globalization and modernization also take their toll in reducing the influence of traditional forms of social interaction and allowing people greater freedom to migrate. In some places, the growth of population can exacerbate economic pressures and induce many to seek their fortune abroad.

Criminal networks latch on to the vulnerable, the poor, and those prey to chaotic social conditions. In this climate, people are more willing to believe the glowing stories of recruiters who make use of some measure of deception to induce people to migrate. They may be told they will be gainfully employed in legitimate work such as cleaning houses or caring for children or old people. Even those who are told that they will be prostitutes are often deceived regarding the inhumane conditions under which they will work. Under the illusion that they will be able to...