Enslaving the deaf to sell dolls

8 July 2016

The global scourge of modern slavery comes in many guises – as Israel is discovering...

For some deaf Ukrainians, going on a dating site for deaf people was the start of a terrible journey. The criminal syndicates that monitor these sites for potential slaves get in touch, making them all kinds of promises if they come to work in Israel. Once they enter the country, they are sent out into the streets with a fake donation card and set to work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week, selling wooden dolls in shops and restaurants. At the end of each day, a member of the syndicate confiscates most of their money.

In Israel, Emi Saar, director of government liaisons and the struggle against trafficking at the non-governmental organisation Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, says that the use of deaf slaves from Eastern Europe, a resurgence in trafficking of women to work as prostitutes and the use of student work programmes in agriculture indicate that this illegal trade keeps evolving.

Israel is, however, making progress in the fight against modern slavery. The Knesset passed a comprehensive Bill against trafficking in 2006. Six years later, the completion of a fence across the Sinai has reduced the influx of illegal immigrants. Yet Saar says: “The public is more concerned about whether something is cheap than the rights of the people who made it.”

The plight of the deaf Ukrainians is a case in point. In 2014, the Israeli Immigration Authority uncovered one criminal syndicate that was luring deaf people in Eastern Europe to come to Israel. The Ministry of Interior, failing to recognise that this was an instance of modern slavery, initially treated the victims as illegal immigrants and deported them. It took Hotline – and the intervention of an independent tribunal – to persuade the Ministry to change course. The Immigration Authority often deports victims without informing the police or the Ministry of Justice. Saar says: “The growing lack of coordination between the various government bodies leads to many victims being deported without even checking whether it’s possible to bring the traffickers to trial.”

The situation has been further complicated by a change of visa rules. Citizens of Moldova and Ukraine no longer need visas to enter Israel and, Saar says, this has made it much easier to traffic Eastern European women to work as prostitutes.

Some slaves are still trafficked in from Africa. Eritreans are kidnapped for ransom by gangs, tortured in camps in the Sinai and then, if their families don’t pay, sold to work for criminal organisations in Israel. The Hotline identified 28 cases in 2015 alone.

Saar says the situation in Israel is improving, but warns that there’s a danger that the authorities become complacent. Hotline would like to see the Ministry of Justice’s Anti-Trafficking Coordinating Combat Unit strengthened and new laws to enforce the implementation of the minimum wage and ban brokerage fees.

The sobering aspect of what’s happening in Israel is that the country is far from the worst offender. The new Walk Free Global Slavery Index from the Walk Free Foundation ranks Israel as 100th in the world with an estimated 27,600 people working in modern slavery conditions in the country.

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