Israel Falls in State Department’s Annual Human Trafficking Report
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a welcome ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC on Jan. 27, 2021. (Carlos Barria/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel Falls in State Department’s Annual Human Trafficking Report

Special mention made of the Middle East’s notorious kafala system

Israel’s human trafficking ranking took a hit and the Middle East’s dreaded kafala system was highlighted in the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report released on Thursday by the US Department of State.

The annual assessment, also known as the TIP Report, is the US government’s principal diplomatic and diagnostic tool used to guide relations with foreign governments relative to human trafficking. The TIP Report focuses on government efforts to address human trafficking across the “3Ps”:  prosecution, protection, and prevention. It explicitly does not measure the scale and scope of human trafficking in any given country but looks at what governments are doing and whether they are meeting set minimum standards. A country’s tier ranking – Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List or Tier 3 – reflects the State Department’s assessment of that government’s efforts during the reporting period to meet the Trafficking Victim Protection Act minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, and against its own efforts during the previous reporting period. It takes into account a country’s resources and capacity when weighing factors and requires governments to demonstrate continual progress to retain rankings on Tier 1 or Tier 2.

“The Government of Israel did not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, although it did make significant efforts to do so. Because the government decreased its efforts in several areas, it was downgraded (from Tier 1) to Tier 2,” Dr. Kari Johnstone, acting director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told The Media Line in a Thursday briefing.

“In particular, the government’s victim identification policies sometimes re-traumatized trafficking victims and delayed access to necessary care, sometimes for years, which meant the trafficking victims did not get the care that they need, often for great periods of time. In addition, the government decreased overall efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers. For the fifth consecutive year, the police anti-trafficking coordinating unit, which was the only authority to officially recognize victims of trafficking, remained severely understaffed, which further affected the efficiency of victim identification procedures and referral of victims to protective services – the care that I mentioned. And finally, government policies toward foreign workers increased their vulnerability to trafficking, and the government did not consistently investigate trafficking cases that were referred to them by NGOs,” said Johnstone.

The report noted Israeli efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict complicit officials, the repeal of the “Deposit Law,” which required migrant workers to have a significant part of their income held by the government until they left the country, and the operation of shelter facilities, but cited a lack of sustained and serious efforts compared to the prior reporting period.

Israel is one of six countries downgraded from Tier 1 to Tier 2, together with Cyprus, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, and Switzerland. The report cited a lack of parliamentary activity and responsiveness to survey questions on the trafficking front, alluding to the instability of Israel’s government and its focus on COVID-19 mitigation efforts as underlying causes.

In fact, the TIP Report introduction this year focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trafficking trends and anti-trafficking efforts around the world. The reporting period for this year’s report is from April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021. The report cited Turkey, where the government trained shelter staff on pandemic mitigation efforts and provided COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment to victims staying at those shelters. Lebanon is noted for extending the ability of migrants to stay in the country for their safety and adjusting the limits of its visa regime due to the pandemic.

Jordan, which had been on the Tier 2 Watch List last year, was upgraded back to Tier 2, while Saudi Arabia made it to Tier 2 after a Tier 3 rating as recently as 2019. Not all Middle East states made such progress. The State Department determined that 11 countries, including Iran and Syria, continue to have a government policy or pattern of trafficking and inadequate enforcement mechanisms. The State Department asserts that some government officials in these countries were themselves part of the problem, directly compelling citizens or foreign nationals into sex trafficking or forced labor. Among the 15 countries implicated in the use of child soldiers were Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Yemen.

Turkey’s inclusion marks the first time a NATO country has been placed on the child soldiers list. A number of media reports claim that some of the Syrian factions Turkey has supported have been involved in various human rights abuses, use of child soldiers – reports that were confirmed by the State Department. This comes as the US is in the middle of negotiating an agreement for Turkey to run the Kabul, Afghanistan airport following the withdrawal of American and NATO troops from the country.

“As a respected regional leader and member of NATO, Turkey has the opportunity to address this issue – the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Syria and Libya. We did determine and document in this report that the Government of Turkey provided support to the Sultan Murad Division, a non-state armed group that recruited and used child soldiers. This division is a Syrian armed opposition group that operates under the umbrella of the Turkish-supported Syrian National Army,” a senior State Department official said.

The report noted the trafficking challenges that accompany the Syrian and Yemeni refugee plights as a result of long-running civil wars in both countries. The report noted that Syrian refugees – women and children particularly women – have been trafficked across the Middle East.

“We have long documented those concerns and trafficking abuses that occur, that traffickers target Syrian refugees, as they do many other refugees and migrants, both in the Middle East region and more broadly in the world. They comprise a group of people that traffickers recognize often do not have a safety net around them. They may not have family relatives. They may not have a lot of other options to seek help and support. And therefore, traffickers often prey and target specifically refugees and migrants. And sadly, that is very true for Syrian refugees and migrants in the region as well,” the senior State Department official said.

“We have included recommendations for many years for countries in the region, both the Middle East and I would also say European countries that have also hosted or through which Syrian migrants and refugees have traveled, and urge those governments to screen for trafficking indicators and identify proactively trafficking victims among this group so that they can get them the care that they need, that is tailored for trafficking victims to prevent their future exploitation and potential re-trafficking as well. We’ve also used some of our foreign assistance funds specifically to raise awareness and build governments’ capacity in the region to identify and provide care for those trafficking victims among this group,” said the official.

Bahrain is the only country in the State Department’s Near East region (Middle East and North Africa) to hold Tier 1 status, marking Bahrain’s fourth consecutive year holding that designation.

“The government continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts during the reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. These efforts included establishing a specialized trafficking Public Prosecutor’s Office and High Court, convicting a complicit government official for sex trafficking, and reporting more sex trafficking convictions. The government also increased efforts to prevent vulnerability of migrants who lost immigration status due to pandemic-related job loss through implementing a series of measures to protect migrant workers and reduce instances of forced labor,” the report says.

However, it is noted that among other shortcomings, Bahraini authorities sometimes treated forced labor – including cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and related abuses – as labor law violations, rather than potential trafficking crimes.

In this year’s report, the kafala system was designated a topic of interest. The kafala (Arabic for sponsorship) system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor – usually their employer – who is responsible for their visa and legal status. In effect, it gives employers full control over the migrant workers’ residency permits, movements in and out of the country, and ability to change employers. Migrant workers who leave their place of employment without permission from their employer forfeit their legal status, thereby increasing their risk of arrest and deportation. This practice has long been criticized by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal consequences. The kafala system is active, primarily in the construction and domestic sectors, in the Gulf Cooperation Council member states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Jordan and Lebanon.

An IST Research survey of 6,000 migrant workers in Gulf states concluded employers were 36 percent more likely to confine migrant domestic workers to their workplace and were 240 percent more likely to force those workers to work on rest days than any other migrant workers. In the same survey, more than 50 percent of migrant workers reported bearing new debts because of the pandemic.

The TIP report suggested a number of measures for reforming the kafala system. It encourages labor-sending countries to do more public outreach, including digital technology, to provide information to prospective workers in languages they understand on labor and immigration laws in the destination country and on reputable recruitment agencies, and greater oversight of the visa application process. It pushes labor-receiving states to provide residency status to victims of labor abuse, provide greater oversight over recruitment agencies and provide specialized training to law enforcement, labor and judicial officials on trafficking indicators. On the international front, suggestions are made for bilateral agreements on labor provisions, diplomatic personnel training on trafficking and encouraging the investigation of allegations of forced labor reported by repatriated victims.

A Qatari figure was named one of eight TIP Report Heroes this year for his kafala reform efforts. Mohammed al-Obaidly, Qatar’s Assistant Undersecretary within the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs, was credited with the creation of Labor Dispute Resolution Committees, the opening of Qatar’s first shelter for human trafficking victims, the removal of exit permit requirements for migrant workers, the implementation of a minimum wage and abolishment of employer certificates needed by workers to transfer to another employer.

This past year, Qatar reported its first forced labor conviction under its anti-trafficking law and held a Tier 2 rating in the TIP Report for the fifth straight year after spending several years on the watch list.

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