Kou Channyyon's story is typical of many young Cambodian men.
Desperate for work, he was trafficked to Malaysia with the promise of earning more than US$200 a month in a coffee factory.
But after he arrived, his passport was confiscated, and he found himself working 13 hours a day, with barely enough money to cover his living costs.
Barred from leaving the factory premises, he did not know if he would ever be able to escape.
"It was exhausting ... I got very little sleep and was paid less than other workers," the 23-year-old farmer's son from southern Kandal Province, told IRIN.
According to the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), thousands of Cambodians are trafficked annually for the purpose of labour exploitation - a figure expected to increase given the global economic downturn.
"The risk factors for an increase are certainly there," Paul Buckley, field operations coordinator for UNIAP, told IRIN in Bangkok, citing job losses, diminished remittances, and rising debt as key indicators.
Cambodian exports have been badly shaken by the global financial crisis, resulting in thousands of workers losing their jobs.
"This makes for an easier environment for traffickers to work in," Buckley said, noting the need for more quantifiable data and research.
Earlier this year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) projected that job losses may surpass 45,000 this year, with a disproportionate burden falling on young workers, who already face few employment opportunities.
"Cambodia confronts a growing problem of providing decent work for this young population," said Ya Navuth, executive director of Coordination of Action Research and Mobility (CARAM), a local NGO working to reduce illegal immigration to other countries.
"I think the government has to solve the problems of labour exploitation or illegal immigration by increasing the domestic market for labour," Ya Navuth said.
|The boats become virtual prisons on which the trafficking victims endure inhumane working conditions and physical abuse|
Scant research on male victims
Trafficking victims have traditionally been identified by governments in Southeast Asia as women and children. There is scant research on the problem of male trafficking for labour exploitation, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
According to the Cambodian government, men seek longer term work mostly in Thailand in construction, factories, transport, fishing and fish processing.
"Males continue to be another vulnerable group besides women and children," UNIAP's national project coordinator in Cambodia, Lim Tith, told IRIN.
"They suffer abuse and labour exploitation [in a bid] to support their family back home," he said.
A 2008 UNIAP report said the main destination countries for Cambodian labour migrants are Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Thailand is the top destination country for victims of human trafficking from Cambodia.
Photo: Kounila Keo/IRIN
|Kou Channyyon was trafficked from Cambodia to Malaysia|
Thai fishing boats
Some of the worst exploited are men and boys who end up on Thai long-haul fishing boats that ply the South China Sea for two years or more at a time, according to a UNIAP study in April 2009.
"The boats become virtual prisons on which the trafficking victims endure inhumane working conditions and physical abuse. Death at sea is frequently reported, sometimes at the hands of Thai boat captains," the study notes.
Until mid-2008, Thailand's anti-human trafficking legislation excluded men from being acknowledged as trafficking victims, which meant that they were counted as illegal migrants instead, and consequently deported.
Some 130,000 individuals are deported to Cambodia from Thailand each year, and evidence is readily available of cases of misidentification by Thai or Cambodian authorities of victims of trafficking departed from Thailand, said the 2008 UNIAP report.
"The fact that the problem remains hidden makes it harder for the NGOs and the government to work on it," Lim Tith said.
Cambodia has undertaken a series of measures to curb trafficking, including a 2008 law that recognizes men as potential trafficking victims for the first time, and provides a better legal framework to prosecute traffickers.
But given the fallout from the global economic crisis, tackling illegal immigration and trafficking may prove difficult for the Cambodian government because of its small budgets and limited human resources, said Lim Tith.
"What's important now is that the government has a political will to solve the problems, although they have very limited options," said Lim Tith.
"With the global economic crisis still continuing or [having an] effect, more men will surely continue to seek jobs abroad and be exploited by the financial crisis," he said.