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Daphna Hacker and Orna Cohen. “The Shelters in Israel for Survivors of Human Trafficking.” US Department of State (2012).

Shelters are an important part of the slim segment of the anti-trafficking industrial complex that can be deemed a human rights project.  They present the opportunity to give genuine aid to victims.  But what is genuine aid?

A recent report to the U.S. State Department by law professor Daphna Hacker and social work professor Orna Cohen provides a rich account of how difficult it can be to answer that question in theory and in practice.  Hacker and Cohen were commissioned to study the two shelters for trafficking victims in Israel – one, Ma’agan, for women and the other, Atlas, for men.  They interviewed shelter residents past and present and professionals involved in the system, from government officials to social workers in the shelters; met with shelter and hot line staff; and did comprehensive research into the history of anti-trafficking efforts in Israel generally and of the shelters in particular. The Report gives detailed assessments of the characteristics of the shelter populations over time; the degree to which the shelters meet the basic needs of trafficking victims; the shelters’ policies and practices on rehabilitation; the specific problems presented by victims with children; the challenges posed by the polyglot character of the shelters’ populations; the relationship between the service orientation of the shelter and legal proceedings, including criminal enforcement against traffickers, trafficked persons’ civil actions for damages, and the processes for granting and denying stay and work permits of Israeli immigration law; and the experiences and problems faced by shelter residents when they leave the shelter, whether for work in Israel or through repatriation. The Report concludes with a series of carefully crafted recommendations.   Among those, the discussion of rehabilitation is to my knowledge an absolute novelty in the massive literature on trafficking: anyone who thinks they know now what trafficking victims need would benefit from reading these daunting but hopeful pages.

This Report provides a crucial empirically grounded basis for thinking about anti-trafficking in terms of the geopolitics of labor migration; the economics of low-wage work; the psychology of human suffering and recovery; the contradictions between the criminal enforcement and human rights elements of the trafficking system; and much more.  It is so comprehensive that it could be the centerpiece of a short course at the undergraduate or professional school level on anti-trafficking.  In this post, however, I’m going to focus on the ways in which the Report’s findings and analysis illuminate the many problems raised by the gradual realization that the international definition of trafficking is not limited to sex trafficking; that prostitution itself is not trafficking; that men can be trafficked; and that trafficking occurs in all labor sectors.  The Report is, approached from this angle, a superrich account of the gendered aspects of the anti-trafficking regime that has burst into existence globally in the last thirteen years.

The names alone tell a story: Ma’agan in English means  “harbor” or “dock”; Atlas was the mythological figure so terrifically strong that he could hold the entire world on his shoulders.  And indeed, the Report’s history of the two shelters shows how each of them is deeply and problematically gendered.  Ma’agan was established when the Israeli anti-trafficking effort was entirely focused what Hacker and Cohen carefully describe as women trafficked for prostitution – what I would call trafficked sex workers — and was modeled originally on shelters for battered women.  It maintains restrictions on the women’s movements designed to protect them but also patronizing and un-freeing them; an emphasis on psychological rehabilitation and attitudinal empowerment; and a certain resignation to the fact that the women will not be getting work visas but instead will be repatriated.  Hacker and Cohen show in painstaking detail how many of these orientations became increasingly inappropriate when the population in the shelter plummeted following the huge crackdown on foreign prostitutes in the mid-oughts (my own sources in Israel tell me that sex work in Israel has effectively been reclaimed by Israeli sex workers) and when the trickle of trafficking victims became, increasingly, legal migrants into service work and desperate refugees from Africa via the Sinai.  Meanwhile the men’s shelter facilitates the men’s eager desire to return as soon as possible to the agricultural work for which they entered Israel, even back into the employment of their traffickers (none of whom have been sanctioned by the Israeli state).  Far from attempting to be psychological counselors, Atlas staff act as employment brokers.

The basic attitude of Ma’agan seems to be that the women need fixing; while that of Atlas is that the men need work.   Hacker and Cohen’s carefully reasoned plea for a new theory of rehabilitation is at least in part, in my view, a response to these strongly gendered differences and a sense that the women might not be so different from the men as the original anti-prostitution emphasis of Israeli anti-trafficking assumed.  The Report thus offers an opportunity to rethink the victim orientation to which anti-prostitution feminists and evangelicals seek to limit anti-trafficking policy and practice.

Meanwhile, the Report makes clear that the priors of the system are ill-prepared for the needs of the intensely trafficked refugees entering Israel from the Sinai.  These are the hyper-victims in this story, and Israeli anti-trafficking can barely touch them in deference to border control policies.  Anyone concerned about the potentially bad fit between anti-trafficking criminal enforcement and refugee protection should read these sections.     And finally, though unmentioned in the report, the closure of Israel to Palestinian workers now trapped in Gaza and the West Bank provides the grim geopolitical context for the labor migration/border control/security state complex in which Israeli anti-trafficking uneasily sits.

Hacker and Cohen’s report is painstaking and nearly exhaustive but never dull: for anyone concerned about trafficking and anti-trafficking, it is as gripping reading as War and Peace.   An amazing accomplishment.  Highly recommended. 

Related posts:

  1. The Eye of the Beholder: How Bad Data, Scrambles for Funding and Professional Bias Shape Human Trafficking Law and Policy, Dina Francesca Haynes
  2. The Unintended Consequences of Nick Kristof’s Anti-Sex Trafficking Crusade, Aziza Ahmed
  3. The State of Care: Rethinking the Distributive Effects of Familial Care Policies in Liberal Welfare States by Hila Shamir
  4. The High Cost of Freedom: A Legal and Policy Analysis of Shelter Detention for Victims of Trafficking by Anne Gallagher and Elaine Pearson
  5. Detention of Trafficked Persons in Shelters: A Legal and Policy Analysis by Anne Gallagher and Elaine Pearson