Photo by: Christopher Shay
Mat Isa holds his new fishing net on Sunday. He received the equipment as part of a new Ministry of Social Affairs effort to help male trafficking victims.
THE Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation handed over a used wooden boat with some fishing equipment to Mat Isa, a male victim of human trafficking, on Sunday morning.
The handover was important for only one family, but the event in Phnom Penh also signalled a major shift in the government's treatment of trafficked males.
"Before, the government focused on women and children, but today, we change our strategy to also focus on men," said Kong Chhan, the deputy director general of technical affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, as he handed over the boat.
Mat Isa, 28, was lured onto a Thai fishing vessel in January 2008 with promises of a steady wage at a Thai garment factory. But instead of earning money for his family, he says he was forced to work "day and night" without pay, living in constant fear of "the men with guns".
He says he watched his friend and fellow trafficking victim beaten to death in Thailand, and in Malaysia, he said he saw a stranger die in the grass in front of him, later hearing that a boat owner had killed him for refusing to work.
In his previous interviews with rights groups, Mat Isa denied having seen anyone murdered, but on Sunday, he said he had been "too happy" to be back on Cambodian soil to talk about the violence when he first arrived.
After enduring horrendous conditions at sea, he says he still feels lucky to have survived and been able to return home.
"Not everybody could escape from the boat," he said, adding that there were between 30 and 40 other labourers onboard, but that he knew only two other Cambodians who had returned.
Mat Isa was one of 17 Cambodians who were repatriated in December after jumping from fishing vessels in Malaysia. The Cambodian government - with US$12,000 from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) - has targeted these men for Cambodia's first male reintegration project.
"We do not have a lot of help for trafficked men at the moment, but we hope to focus on trafficked men in the future," said Kim Sovandy at the Ministry of Social Affairs' Anti-Trafficking and Reintegration Office.
The support for these men will match their specific needs, John McGeoghan from the IOM said. While Mat Isa received a fishing boat, other trafficking victims will receive phone repair training, piglets, ducklings or a moto, McGeoghan said.
Trafficking experts say that unemployment can push men back into the same risky situations that got them trafficked in the first place.
"When men go home, they mostly need work.... Without any reintegration program, men are more likely to be re-trafficked," said Lim Tith, the national project coordinator at the UN Inter-Agency Project (UNIAP) on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.
If I didn't have a boat we would face a lot of problems. My family has no work.
Pheara Lek, the assistant to the director at the Healthcare Centre for Children (HCC), said it can be difficult for men to return home empty-handed.
"Their families expect that they will come back with money, but unfortunately, they often return with no money, and then they have to face their family," Pheara Lek said.
In Mat Isa's case, after returning home with nothing, he will finally be able to support his family.
"The boat will be used every day - not only by me, but also by my father. It will help my whole family," he said. "If I didn't have a boat, we would face a lot of problems. My family has no work."
Reliable statistics about the extent of male trafficking are unavailable, but many fear that the economic crisis could exacerbate an already serious problem.
"It's making people more vulnerable to taking risks. Less money coming into the family means more pressure to do what they wouldn't normally do. This can be taken advantage of by traffickers," McGeoghan said, adding, "unless you can give people an opportunity to feed their families or generate an income, you're not going to solve the problem".
McGeoghan stressed that though the IOM had supplied financial support, the goal was to make the authorities aware of the needs of men and expand the government approach to the trafficking to include men.
"We'd like to see the Ministry of Social Affairs sensitised to the fact that trafficking affects both men and women," he said. "It's all about getting responsibility to the government."
After having heard Mat Isa's story, the deputy director general of technical affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Kong Chhan, said he would propose changes to the Poipet Transfer Centre that would allow it to house men as well children.
Right now, Cambodia has only two shelters for male trafficking victims, one in Phnom Penh run by Legal Support for Children and Women and one in Koh Kong run by the HCC, according to Lim Tith.