Selling Olga, by Louisa Waugh

A potent exposé of the high cost of human traffic
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Human trafficking is the world's fastest-growing form of organised crime and has become synonymous with sexual exploitation. Illegal migrant workers smuggled over borders tend to be left alone once they have reimbursed their facilitators. Victims of trafficking, however, can seldom pay their way out, being kept in a state of slavery by deception and violence. Louisa Waugh's Selling Olga investigates human trafficking across Europe. It makes grim reading.

The annual profit of traffickers bringing sex workers into Western Europe is estimated at $5bn to $7bn. That doesn't include money made once these women are prostituted and resold. Beaten, degraded, gang-raped, they are sometimes literally worked to death. Olena Popik was pimped across five countries in three years. This 21-year-old Ukranian was still being rented out at Bosnian truck stops while dying from Aids.

In the three years Waugh spent researching, public awareness has grown. There have been changes in the laws and examples of traffickers receiving lengthy prison sentences. Yet while destinations may alter, women and children continue to be duped by false promises of good jobs abroad or sold off by someone they know. Trafficked women come from Africa, Thailand, China and in huge numbers from Eastern Europe.

The crumbling of the Soviet Union had a devastating effect on the economies of countries such as Moldova, where three years ago the average wage was about 80p a day and trafficking a national industry. Instability created a perfect environment for criminal activity. After the 1995 Dayton agreement, women started to be imported to Bosnia, and to Kosovo five years later with the arrival of international peacekeepers. Barracks bring brothels.

Waugh begins in the Balkans, then heads to Sicily with its Nigerian streetwalkers. She also focuses on the sex industry in Britain. Not all migrant sex workers are trafficked; not all sex workers want rescuing. But, she concludes, there isn't enough provision for those who do.

Selling Olga avoids being sensational or prurient. If anything, Waugh is over-scrupulous. She uses information from international aid agencies, women's organisations, counter-trafficking agencies - all with their agendas - and depends on them for access to victims like Olga from Moldova, who thought she would be caring for old people in Italy, and Annette, disposed of by her African guardians when she was 15.

Anxious about being invasive, Waugh backs off when her interviewees seem reluctant. Her own emotional jitteriness gets in the way. She recounts the well-publicised downfall of Luan Plakici but doesn't track down any traffickers herself. Nor does she secure interviews with women still coerced as prostitutes. Some months ago, an investigative journalist did that. He visited jailed traffickers and met a Romanian girl on sale. In comparison, Waugh's accounts seem rather filtered.

Even so, this is an affecting book. Desperate people take desperate measures. Official responses don't engage with why vulnerable people are trafficked and, in some cases, re-trafficked. Waugh argues cogently that victims should receive physical and legal sanctuary. Those yet to be trafficked need reasons not to be. To have a viable future at home, the Olenas and Olgas need economic hope.