June 5 (Bloomberg) — Israel and Egypt, both U.S. allies, were demoted in a State Department ranking of countries judged on efforts to combat forced labor and other forms of exploitation.
Israel was put on a “watch list'' because the government failed to provide evidence that it is addressing conditions of involuntary servitude “allegedly facing thousands of foreign migrant workers,'' the State Department's annual “Trafficking in Persons Report'' said.
Egypt was put on the same list, a step that can lead to U.S. financial sanctions, because it didn't show that law enforcement efforts had been stepped up to fight the smuggling of Eastern European women across the Sinai Desert to work in the Israeli sex trade, the report said. Trafficking concerns about Iran and the World Cup soccer tournament also were highlighted in the report.
Placement on the watch list “stands for worry, it stands for warning,'' U.S. Ambassador John Miller, an adviser on international slavery, told reporters at the State Department in Washington today.
Countries on the watch list are in jeopardy of being dropped the following year into the lowest ranking, where they face the possibility of U.S. sanctions relating to foreign aid. Support from the U.S. government for loans from the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank may also be withheld.
A spokesman at the Israeli Embassy declined to comment on the report. A call to the Egyptian Embassy was not immediately returned.
Three countries in Asia — Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan – – were added to the watch list, cited as destinations or transit countries for forced labor and sexual exploitation. The Philippines was moved off the list.
In all, the U.S. now has 32 countries on the watch list, among them Argentina, Cambodia, China, India, Kenya, Mexico, Russia and South Africa.
Iran fell two notches this year to the lowest ranking, “after persistent, credible reports of Iranian authorities punishing victims of trafficking with beatings, imprisonment, and execution,'' the U.S. report said.
While Iranian government officials were arrested in April for sexually exploiting children, some of whom were as young as 13, the report said Iran “did not provide any evidence that these officials were officially charged, prosecuted or convicted for trafficking.''
Iran, which is locked in a dispute with the U.S. over its nuclear ambitions, joined 11 other countries at the bottom of the rankings, including Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Miller expressed concern that the World Cup games in Germany, which begin this week, create the potential for increased trafficking to support the sex trade.
“There are reports of thousands of women being transported to Germany for sex during the World Cup,'' Miller said.
Slavery also exists in the U.S., involving domestic servitude and sex commerce, Miller said in a primer posted on the State Department's Web site. “We believe that up to 17,500 men, women and children are trafficked across our borders into slavery every year,'' he said.
In April, the U.S. military in Iraq issued requirements that contractors be licensed for labor recruitment and not charge illegal fees after an investigation found abuses of workers from India, Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia. Excessive fees, confiscation of passports and “substandard'' living conditions were among the problems faced by third-country nationals employed in Iraq, according to the State Department.
Israel draws low-skilled workers from several countries, including China, Romania and Jordan, the report said. While the workers migrate voluntarily to jobs in agriculture, construction and health care, they are often required by recruiters to pay off fees of as much as $10,000.
Private groups estimate that between 16,000 and 20,000 foreign workers in Israel are in this bind, the report said.
The Israeli government didn't pass a much-needed law criminalizing trafficking, and it should do more to “adequately punish'' the traffickers and enforce existing bans on recruitment fees, the report said.
Efforts to crack down on the problem were “uneven and inadequate over the last year,'' the report said. While Israel filed 208 criminal indictments against employers for breaking labor laws that govern foreign workers and 133 indictments against manpower companies, most were punished by fines and few employers faced jail time, the report said.
By contrast, Israel made “noticeable improvement'' in its efforts to crack down on the number of women brought from Eastern Europe for sexual exploitation, the report said.
Egypt is a transit country for Eastern European women being taken to Israel for prostitution, the report said. The women are brought through the Sinai Desert by Bedouins, who “routinely rape and abuse'' them on journeys that can take two months to complete, the report said.
Laborers from sub-Saharan Africa are also transported through the Sinai en route to Europe, where they are exploited, the U.S. said.
While Egypt is doing a better job at stopping trafficking through the Sinai, the country failed to draft an anti- trafficking law. It also had few prosecutions in the past year, the report said.
While the report praised the Egyptian government for improving training for border security officials, the country should be more proactive, the State Department said.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Judy Mathewson in Washington at [email protected]