Britain is being urged to look to Israel for lessons in how to combat human trafficking and rehabilitate victims.
Labour MP Frank Field and former Conservative MP Anthony Steen are among those praising Israel for making trafficking “a priority issue”, prosecuting perpetrators to such an extent that shelters that were once full of trafficked Eastern European women are now empty of them.
According to Israeli opposition MK Orit Zuaretz, who chairs the Knesset subcommittee on trafficking, in Israel “the phenomenon of the sex trade as we knew it is practically eliminated”.
In a Westminster Hall debate last month, Mr Field, a minister under Tony Blair, drew attention to Israel’s success in tackling the problem of Russian-speaking Eastern European women trafficked into Israel for the sex trade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In his speech, he highlighted the fact that Israel had taken the problem “immensely seriously”. While it had not solved slavery as a world problem, he said Israel had “largely dealt with it in its own borders”.
Mr Field has now written to Immigration Minister Mark Harper pushing for tougher government action on an area it claims is a priority, emphasising in particular the vital role of police operations in pursuing traffickers.
“This is an area where Israel has been getting the strategy right,” he said. “Traffickers often simply send their victims to countries where they feel they can most easily get away with their crime. Israel has been successful in creating a tough environment for traffickers.”
Mr Field said the Israeli government’s effective methods of deterrence should be contrasted with the UK, “which has sadly become a repository for trafficking victims”.
Mr Steen, founder of the All Party Group on human trafficking and now head of the Human Trafficking Foundation, also encouraged the British government to study Israel’s experience.
In November he visited Israel to see the shelters for trafficking victims.
“If we talk about modern-day slavery in Britain, the biggest problem is that it is hidden,” said Mr Steen. “The professionals who should be fighting this scourge are part of the problem because they keep everything hidden.
“They don’t share information, so we don’t know where the victims are, where the brothels are.”
He described a contrasting culture in Israel, where information is shared, the issue is discussed openly and police are prepared to discuss their approach “Politicians, police and NGOs are all seen to have equal status in fighting trafficking, rather than there being a pecking order.”
He said Israel offered “a shining example of how to disrupt trafficking gangs” and divert them.
“The reason I did not see any Eastern European women in the shelters is because there aren’t any now. That has happened in no other country in Europe.
“Because the police are viewing trafficking with the same severity as terrorism, every officer is committed to driving it out. Traffickers are now being persecuted, prosecuted and pursued.
“The police are harassing them, raiding places where the women might be, to the point that the traffickers have decided they don’t want the hassle.”
He highlighted the standard of the shelters — “among the highest I have ever seen” — and the efforts made to educate the victims.
“Israel did a tremendous job in helping rehabilitate and retrain trafficked women so they could return to their home country.”
The “extraordinary” work was praised by Celia Gould, wife of Matthew Gould, the British Ambassador to Israel. “I have met many of the Israeli volunteers who work in these centres, and many of the victims themselves,” she said.
“The victims come with the most heart-wrenching stories, and have the acute need for accommodation, medical care and child care.”
Israel’s success has come after nearly a decade of concerted action from across the political spectrum, said Ms Zuaretz. “In 2004 a committee decided there should be a national plan to fight this phenomenon,” she said.
In 2005 her committee became permanent and in the years since, legislation has been passed setting out definitions of trafficking and specifying the punishments.
Israel also agreed to open state-funded shelters in which victims could stay for a year, or more if necessary, and receive training and support.
Last year, in a landmark case, gang kingpin Rahamim Saban was convicted in what judges labelled one of the largest human trafficking operations ever involving Israel.
Resources have also been devoted to training police, immigration inspectors, people on border control and social workers.
“We have a plan to make sure they have all the tools to identify the victims. You have to ask the right questions,” said Ms Zuaretz.
Although Israel still faces a huge and unsolved challenge over trafficked men and women from African countries who are taken through the Sinai and arrive in Israel, it has won acclaim for its efforts to stem the tide from Eastern Europe.
Last year the US State Department placed Israel on a list of only 32 countries deemed to be actively fighting human trafficking.
“There is a lot of political will,” said Ms Zuaretz. “We succeeded with the full support of ministers and a will to change and fight this phenomenon.”
She has already shared Israel’s methods with the US and 30 other countries, including Russia, Nigeria, Turkey and Colombia. She said she would be delighted to share her work with the British government.
“Britain, which spends its time criticising Israel, ought to know that Israel is ahead of the game here,” said Mr Steen.
“Israel is setting the lead.”