Prostitution: Ukraine's Unstoppable Export

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Mauro Bottaro / Anzenberger / Redux

A Ukrainian prostitute in Berlin

On a hot Sunday night, a car pulls over in the port of Odessa, southern Ukraine. About 30 girls swarm around it, posing in the glare of its headlights. The driver's window rolls down and a female pimp — known by the girls, almost lovingly, as a mamachka — leans inside to negotiate a price. Within a minute, two girls have hopped into the car and the rest go back to chatting and dragging on their cigarettes. Business is brisk, but the girls look bored. For them, this is basically downtime.

"The real action is in the Emirates, Dubai or Antalya," says Masha, a stick-thin 19-year-old who teeters a little on her heels. "Don't be confused," she says. "Nobody takes us by the hair and drags us onto the ships." She gestures toward the mouth of the port. "Those are like the gates to freedom for a lot of us," she says. "Yeah, like the Statue of Liberty," adds another girl, and the group of them erupts into laughter.

It took less than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union for Odessa to become a hub for the international sex trade. The conditions were just about perfect. The bustling port on the Black Sea was an easy gateway from the poorest parts of Ukraine, Romania and Moldova to Western Europe and the Arab states. Organized crime was rampant, Odessa's dirt-poor police were known to be corruptible and seven decades of living behind the Iron Curtain had created a generation of provincial girls as ignorant of the outside world as they were desperate for its opportunities.

But the prostitutes who pass through Odessa these days do not harbor the naive dreams of their predecessors from the '90s. And so the sex trade through Odessa has hardened in the past few years into something more jaded and much more difficult to stop. "Reporters always come here demanding to see the victims," says Olga Kostyuk, deputy head of the charity Faith, Hope, Love, which provides assistance to Odessa's sex workers. "They want to see the men, the pimps, the manipulators behind all of this. But things are not so simple now."

For one thing, there aren't many pimps left in this city of 1 million people, at least not the men who engaged in the most vicious forms of sex trafficking. As recently as 2006, their most common method of recruitment was to send scouts into the nearby towns to lure girls back to the port with false promises of work abroad — as a dancer in Paris or a waitress in Dubai — and then force them into prostitution. But most of these modern-day slave traders are gone — these days, few of the prostitutes who pass through Odessa have been tricked into joining the trade. "Now the typical situation is that an experienced girl gets off the plane from Turkey covered in gold, diamonds and furs, and goes back to her home village," says Svetlana Chernolutskaya, a psychologist who has counseled prostitutes in Odessa for years. "She finds the girls who are in a tough spot and tells them how much money they can make turning tricks in a foreign country."

The poverty and general hopelessness in many villages of eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Romania now run so deep — especially in the wake of the financial crisis — that the promise of a job as a prostitute abroad is enough to get the vast majority of trafficked women to sign up voluntarily. They follow the mamachki to foreign resorts or big cities in Western Europe, where the prevalence of sex workers from the ex–Soviet Union has earned them a nickname: Natashas. The girls work the streets and hotel lobbies until they get deported or homesick. After a few weeks off in Odessa or wherever they call home, they're shipped out again. The cycle ends when they earn enough to retire or, as more often happens, when they get too old for the job — which in this business can be as young as 26.

The forced prostitution of women through coercion or violence is still a global tragedy (although statistics vary, U.N. and U.S. observers agree that the victims number in the hundreds of thousands each year). But the dozen aid workers and prostitutes TIME spoke to in Odessa said that sex trafficking through the city has moved away from being an industry run on fear to one driven by voluntary, if desperate, participation. Many think this is because the practice of forcing women into prostitution was drawing too much attention from the police and media. But most of them believe it's just down to cynicism setting in. Even in the most isolated backwoods of Eastern Europe, few girls still have illusions about opportunities in the West — about the real Statue of Liberty — "so they take what they can get," says Natalia Savitskaya, a counselor for Faith, Hope, Love.

Whatever the causes of this change in Odessa's sex trade, it presents a new set of challenges for the people trying to tackle it. Officially, the number of trafficked women who go through the city each year has dropped by more than half since a peak in 2006. But that is not because their numbers are really going down, says Kostyuk of Faith, Hope, Love. "The girls see themselves as victims of fate, but not of deception, so they don't ask for help." Which makes them almost impossible to track.

Last year, Kostyuk's charity responded with a new approach: instead of patrolling for the sex slaves who used to stumble off the ships in the port, battered and lost, Faith, Hope, Love now tries to provide guidance to drug addicts and runaways who are at risk of turning to prostitution. Still, says Kostyuk, "the trend in trafficking isn't going down, because the more intensely we work to stop them, the better they seem to adapt."

Efforts to stem Odessa's sex trade are further complicated by the semiofficial relationship the female pimps enjoy with local law enforcement. Over a traditional Odessan meal of steamed crayfish, a lieutenant colonel in the internal-affairs department tells TIME that police offer protection to the mamachki for a monthly fee. "It's a big feeding trough for a lot of the officers — all very organized, like a local institution," he says. As if to prove the point, two police cars creep by the crowd of girls standing in the port, but don't stop. It seems that until their countries can offer these girls something more than poverty, corruption and disillusion, the export of Natashas will remain one of Odessa's signature trades.