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Human Trafficking: Russian Mafia and the Israeli Connection - 2001-07-20

The illegal trafficking of human beings is a growing international crime. Criminal groups have developed a brisk trade selling tens of thousands of women into prostitution. The result is virtual enslavement, as Attorney General John Ashcroft emphasized in announcing new regulations for dealing with traffickers and their victims. Russian mafia, and its connections in Israel, provide an example of how the trade works.

The newspaper ad is hard to resist: a high paying job as a waitress or secretary or model, and it helps to be young and pretty.

For desperate women in the shrunken economies of Russia, Ukraine, and other states of the former Soviet Union, the offer from abroad is too good to be true, and of course it is not. But they do not know that as they make their first contact with the elaborate traffic in prostitution.

Once they begin this journey, there is no turning back. The traffickers see to that. Sigal Rozen, director of the Hot Line for Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel, tells how it works. "According to estimates, every year there are about 2,000 -3,000 women trafficked to Israel from the former Soviet Union for the Israeli sex industry," Ms. Rozen explains. "This criminal activity brings millions of dollars a year to the pockets of the pimps. The ongoing situation cannot be defined as normal immigration, but can only be regarded as modern slavery."

At a meeting of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Sigal Rozen said the women used to arrive in Israel by plane and boat until security was tightened. Now they make a longer trek through the Egyptian desert.

Elena was earning $17 a month as a nurse in Russia. Answering an ad for a waitress job, she met a contact in Moscow who sent her to a trafficker in Egypt in a display of Arab-Israeli cooperation. "He took her and three other Russian women who came on a different flight and handed them over to three Bedouins with guns, who instructed them to enter a truck and cover themselves with blankets," Ms. Rozen says. "Then they were taken out of the truck near the border fence. They crossed the fence and continued to walk in the desert for about an hour when they met a man in a jeep on the Israeli side. They were taken to a flat. A man who was waiting in the flat explained to them that they needed to take a shower and put on makeup since people are coming to choose them."

At this point, said Sigal Rozen, Elena realized she was not going to be a waitress. Luckily for her, the police raided the brothel, freeing her from that captivity, but leading to complications with the law until she was finally deported.

Other women do not escape. "The broker sells them to an Israeli pimp, who immediately makes it clear that since he paid for the woman, $3,000 -10,000, she now needs to repay the debt before she starts making money for herself," Ms. Rozen says. "The main problem for the pimp is that after a woman works in such harsh conditions without getting paid for few months, she usually becomes bitter, and sometimes she has the audacity to stop being nice to the customers."

At that stage, said Sigal Rozen, the irritated pimp sells his problem woman to another pimp. Then, she starts the process all over again until she is finally worn down and discarded, often to the police who have her deported.

A series of lawsuits filed by Rozen's Hot Line, along with a blistering report on trafficking by Amnesty International, has led to more aggressive government action.

We are taking the problem more seriously, says Israeli Police Superintendent Gil Kleiman, who notes 15 people involved in trafficking have been convicted in Tel Aviv in the past three-months.

Superintendent Kleiman says a new law making trafficking a crime has helped police move on the problem, and he cites another crucial change in the treatment of the women brought to Israel. "How do you deal with people on the one hand who are here illegally, and secondly how do you keep them in country so they can give testimony against the traffickers in human beings?," Mr. Kleiman says. "So what the Tel Aviv district police did through their own budget is set up a system in which these women will be kept in country until the end of the trial."

They are also lodged in a hotel instead of prison as they await trial. When it is over, the police try not to deport them into a dangerous situation.

Elya Kaplan, a police inspector fluent in Russian, leads a new unit to apprehend traffickers. It is a tough job, he says, because he must establish contacts abroad to build a case, and that covers a lot of territory. He must also persuade the women to cooperate. "Usually, the girls are afraid," Mr. Kaplan says. "They do not understand that this police is not the former Soviet Union police. They have to believe that we are working for them. We want their vital evidence for making a case against those people who are buying and selling girls. They are using those girl like cows, like horses. There are not any words for this."

The price of women for sale is going up, says Mr. Kaplan, indicating some success for the police effort. But given the size of the problem, he says he could use much more help.