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Monday, 24 March 2008

Louisa Waugh's Selling Olga (2006) chronicles human sex trafficking. Near the end of the book she quotes a figure: over a three-year period it was estimated that 15,000 women and girls had been trafficked "through" the Balkans.

The most startling news concerns a sudden influx of trafficked females in the wake of the UN's entry into Kosovo as part of its remit to restore stability to Serb-controlled regions. Kosovo quickly became a prime destination for the women.

Many are from Moldova, a small ex-Soviet-bloc state that borders the Black Sea. Waugh visits Moldova as well as Kosovo. She also spends time investigating British responses to human trafficking. It is here that she discusses issues that came to light in Sydney recently with arrests linked to Korean sex slaves operating out of a city apartment building.

The outcome of the investigation by Sydney police is yet to be fully covered by the metropolitan press. It was common knowledge, during my media study last year, that investigating coerced sex workers in the Kings Cross district would be perilous for a journalist.

Hopefully new stories will emerge. In the meantime, Waugh's book notes that the business has developed and become more professionalised. She says that Italian mafia are involved. Also, a new trend is for ex-slaves to become pimps and traffickers themselves.

This is, she says, an ideal way to control information, as recruitment and economic benefits are well-suited to securing complicity. And silence.

In Britain, she says, a major area of need is how human trafficking should be handled: as an immigration issue or as a human rights issue. For the most part, the women victims are willing to help secure convictions (the participation of victims is key to prosecutorial success).

In other cases, they do not want to be 'helped' because it could mean retribution (for themselves or their families). And because the immigration issue has yet to be fixed, the likelihood of repatriation deters many from assisting in investigations.

Temporary shelters have been set up in London, but the number of beds is not adequate, says Waugh. There are moreover 450,000 undocumented workers in the Isles, she says, and so a less draconian response to the presence of an 'illegal' living onshore is required. The alternative is that sex workers, who were desperate to leave impoverished conditions back home, will not come forward, or will not help government agencies stop their 'bosses'.

Waugh spent three years working on this, her second, book. The first, Hearing Birds Fly: A Year in a Mongolian Village was published in 2003. While writing and researching Selling Olga, Waugh worked part-time in a mental-health unit.

This is literary journalism at its best. Adding colour (she even recounts a far-off fling with a handsome man she met - or, at least, hints strongly at this) serves her ultimate purpose well. The 'colour' facilitates delivery of otherwise dry facts. It also serves to cement facts in the reader's mind.

Travelling on the cheap meant staying in the houses of friends or of people she met who were associated with her research. There are many interesting 'characters' in this book. Most of them are female.

There are some horror stories too. But the main element of interest - UN peacekeeping forces contained men who both had sex with, and trafficked, vulnerable women - should give us all pause. Official moves for change have started. The main concern is, she says, that many soldiers who conducted themselves dishonourably escape any trial in their home countries. They already have immunity from prosecution in the target country under the UN charter.

Recent post-election disturbances in Kenya led to a TV documentary about women raped as a result of a sudden break-out of lawlessness. Some were interviewed on-camera. Some were not young. Some were very young.

When laws are inadequate and when authorities sell compliance to the monied criminals, those who cannot help themselves get hurt, says Waugh.

The ultimate solution, it seems, is ensuring political stability and so securing prosperity in struggling (mostly small) nations. You sort of wonder about Fiji, too.

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