Fifteen people have been arrested in Cambodia for allegedly taking part in illegal surrogacy, the Kingdom’s anti-trafficking authority says.
- Key points:
Surrogate mothers can be charged with human trafficking and face 20 years in prison
Cambodia banned international commercial practice in 2016
More than 30 women and a Chinese operator of a surrogacy ring arrested in June
According to Cambodia’s National Police website, 11 of those arrested are pregnant surrogates, along with two men and two other women working as cooks.
Chou Bun Eng, from the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, confirmed the arrests were made on November 8.
“We are very worried about the surrogacy case,” she said.
“Now we find more and more, we don’t know how many more [there will be].”
The latest case comes after authorities in June arrested more than 30 women and a Chinese operator of a surrogacy ring providing children to Chinese clients.
Those women — a number of whom have given birth and face the prospect of raising the children they were paid to carry — remain detained in a hospital on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
They have been charged with human trafficking and face up to 20 years in prison and are currently being held in a hospital building in Phnom Penh.
Chou Bun Eng was unable to provide further details on the latest arrest, including whether any organisers or brokers were detained or which foreign country the babies were destined for, as she was waiting on a police report.
Phnom Penh anti-trafficking police chief Keo Thea hung up when asked about the arrests and did not respond to further calls.
The arrests throw the fate of the babies into limbo and it remains unclear if the unknown foreign intended parents will be permitted to claim and raise the children.
Surrogacy akin to ‘selling babies’
Chou Bun Eng said commercial surrogacy was seen as buying or selling children and therefore as human trafficking.
“They hide the baby in the womb and deliver them or bring them across borders,” she said.
But surrogacy advocates and couples desperate for a child have objected to that characterisation.
“To compare child-trafficking to surrogacy is an ignorant and far-fetched comparison,” said Sam Everingham of Australian-based Families Through Surrogacy.
“These children are the biological children of the intended parents.
“The restrictive nature of surrogacy laws in different countries is encouraging surrogacy agents to get around these laws by facilitating embryo transfer in one country and gestation and birth in another.”
He added that the arrests of vulnerable surrogates missed the mark, as the problem lay with surrogacy agents who recruited women in contravention of Cambodian guidelines.
“The Cambodian Government instead needs to understand who are the IVF clinics undertaking embryo transfer procedures and enforce sanctions on this group, not on unwitting surrogates,” he said.
While women’s advocates say women who enter into surrogacy agreements are often impoverished and unaware it is illegal, Chou Bun Eng said there was no excuse.
“Now everyone should be aware the case is prohibited,” she said.
She added that those who broke the rules would face legal consequences, despite Cambodia’s law on surrogacy still being drafted.
Chak Sopheap, from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said women who acted as surrogate mothers generally came from poor backgrounds and were deprived of education or other opportunities.
“The majority have no choice but to do this type of work in order to survive and support their families,” she said.
“They are victims, and should not be punished.”
She said organisers of surrogacy rings should be punished but were entitled to independent investigations and transparent, fair trials.
Commercial surrogacy flourished in Cambodia after bans on the practice in Nepal, India and Thailand following the international outcry over the Baby Gammy case.
But surrogacy was declared illegal in Cambodia in a snap edict from the Health Minister in October 2016.
Shortly after, authorities arrested Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles and two Cambodian associates, who provided surrogacy services for Australian parents.
The trio served 18 months in prison in Cambodia for falsely obtaining documents and acting as intermediaries between a child and an adoptive parent.
Rodrigo Montero, gender adviser at the United Nations Development Programme, said surrogacy amounted to the buying and selling of children and was a form of reproductive exploitation.
He said Cambodia’s Interior Ministry had the right approach in prosecuting commercial surrogacy rings but cautioned against prosecuting surrogate mothers.
“While the Cambodian police is enforcing the law rightly, punishment of surrogate mothers should at this stage be considered carefully by the judicial authorities because these women might have been deceived and be indeed victims of misinformation, pressure or even extortion from third parties,” he said.