BIRMINGHAM, England, August 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Breathe in, breathe out; Yu tried to clear his mind of the years he spent enslaved in a restaurant as the group of survivors finished meditating and turned to their plans for the future.
Sitting in a community center in Birmingham, central England, with a handful of other male victims of human trafficking, Yu was learning to process his emotions and focus on his dream of studying medicine and becoming a doctor.
He is among a fast rising number of men to have been trapped in servitude in Britain, with more men than women now referred for post-slavery government support which has fueled concerns about limited support in a system largely focused on women.
Forced labor has recently overtaken sexual exploitation as the main form of modern slavery in Britain - accounting for about 60% of suspected victims last year compared to around 40% in 2013 - and the vast majority of those put to work are men.
“Sometimes I can’t control my anger, but in the second session the teacher told me how to do it,” said Yu, 27, who was taken to Europe from China by a relative who abandoned him, before being abducted by traffickers and forced to work.
“My hope for the future is to live like a normal guy - I can go to college and work,” added Yu, who declined to give his real name, during a pilot project by The Sophie Hayes Foundation, a charity aiming to make male slavery survivors more employable.
Britain uncovered a record 7,000 suspected modern slaves last year - up a third on 2017 - and men make up an increasing proportion of their numbers with many reporting forced labor at sites from car washes to farms, as well as rape and violence.
“(Slavery) was always perceived to be a female problem ... sex trafficking and domestic servitude. The labor exploitation aspect has really only come to light a little bit later,” said Garry Smith, head of anti-slavery charity The Medaille Trust.
“The need is swinging towards male survivors - and services need to respond to that,” he said, adding that many anti-slavery group started out working with women and were now “catching up”.
Male trafficking victims are more likely than women to have been homelessness and suffered drug or alcohol addiction, and tend to be less open about their exploitation, emotions and needs, said several anti-slavery organizations that help men.
Yet women are often put first in terms of access to housing and other help, according to charities who are concerned that many male victims end up left vulnerable to further abuse.
People who say they have been enslaved are supported through a government scheme which offers care including housing, healthcare and legal aid for a limited amount of time.
Campaigners, however, are concerned that many men end up isolated, neglected and vulnerable once they leave the system.
While interest and investment in tackling slavery has surged in recent years, most the attention has been on female-dominated sex trafficking, leaving men at risk of being overlooked, found a recent paper in the journal “Crime, Law and Social Change”.
The Salvation Army, a charity that manages the government support program, has developed activities for male survivors, ranging from art therapy and gardening to a fishing group.
But an overall lack of community support services reflected social norms in which men tended to find it harder to talk about their emotions, said northwest regional manager Kieran Walsh.
“The recognition of a need for places where men can commune and offer self-help and mutual support is growing,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding there was a lack of men’s groups and clubs to give male victims additional support.
“I think those services are lagging behind women’s services because ... of men not wanting to admit there is a problem.”
Many male slaves are trapped by huge debts they cannot pay, plied with alcohol and drugs, and beaten or even raped by traffickers seeking to exert control.
“With male victims, it takes a long time for the truth to come out ... many have been raped and it takes away a lot of their identity and self-esteem,” said Rachel Witkin, head of counter-trafficking at the Helen Bamber Foundation, a charity.
“Young men tend to think it (rape) has only happened to them - they are surprised when they learn that it is widespread.”
Scepticism that they could be recognized as victims and the prospect of going home “empty-handed” drove some men away from support services - sometimes back into slavery - activists said.
“Some of the men we work with turn to alcohol or drugs to cope ... and end up exploited again ... doing illegal work,” said Viktor Dúbrava, team leader at anti-slavery charity Hestia.
“Many feel that they need to work - earning money often equals a sense of survival.”
Yet anti-slavery charities were confident that dedicated schemes for male survivors could stop them being exploited again - and offer a much-needed opportunity to build a better future.
At the men’s employment pilot project in Birmingham, survivors warmly congratulated each other and spoke of their hopes as they sat down for lunch to mark the end of the project.
“Now I know my future is better,” Yu said after receiving his course certificate. “I never knew people could be so kind”.
Reporting by Sonia Elks and Kieran Guilbert, Writing by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org