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A s night fell, scores of women emerged in the labyrinth of streets and alleys by the Black Sea. Dozens gathered at Tamozhennaya Square, beside the forbidding iron gates that guard the entrance to the city's port. When a car pulled over, girls swarmed towards it, striking poses in the headlights. A mamachka — a female pimp — negotiated a deal. Moments later a scantily dressed figure tottered forward and climbed inside.
Welcome to Odessa: the strategic southern Ukrainian port that has emerged as one of the principal hubs of the international sex trade. Blighted by police corruption and organised crime, the city has become a marketplace where women are bought, sold, deceived, abused, and in many cases trafficked to a hellish life abroad.
Last week, the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of human trafficking worldwide was published by the US state department. The Trafficking In Persons report estimates up to , human beings continue to be traded across borders. Many end up in brothels and massage parlours across western Europe. Many come from Ukraine. According to the report, the numbers of Ukrainians forced into prostitution "continued to increase" in ; women were routinely trafficked to and from the country.
Odessa, founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century, is at the heart of this dark, modern trade in human lives. Campaigners call it the European hub for the trade in sexual captives. Later this month the British government will unveil its much-delayed and much-criticised anti-trafficking strategy. It is expected to recommend that attempts should be made to identify and disrupt trafficking networks at "source".
A visit to Tamozhennaya Square and the remainder of this menacing city should count among its first priorities. Away from the water's edge, within the offices of anti-trafficking charity Faith Hope Love, Olga Kostyuk confirms that "high season" has begun — the annual migration of thousands of women to join Odessa's sex trade. Some have been coerced. Some have been deceived by offers of jobs in offices, work as models or lucrative new employment within the EU.