Police in Cambodia have discovered 33 pregnant women who were working as part of an illegal surrogacy operation in Phnom Penh.
The women are not currently facing criminal charges but five other people have been arrested in connection with the operation, including a Chinese man believed to be in charge.
Phnom Penh anti-trafficking police chief, Keo Thea, told Reuters: 'They are carrying babies for Chinese nationals.' He also described the details of the operation, including how surrogates were lured into the scheme with the promise of making US$10,000. The women were each paid US$500 after becoming pregnant, with an additional US$300 per month paid after the babies were delivered.
Surrogacy services were made illegal in Cambodia in 2016 after the country began attracting wealthy foreigners looking for women to carry their children. It followed similar bans in neighbouring countries such as Thailand (see BioNews 876).
Developing countries including Cambodia are popular among would-be parents looking for surrogacy services, as the prices as much lower than in developed nations, where surrogacy can cost as much as US$150,000.
The pregnant surrogates are now under the care of the Social Welfare Ministry, while Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ly Sophana said that the five organisers had been formally charged with two counts of trafficking under the new laws. In Cambodia 'the act of selling, buying or exchanging a person for cross-border transfer' is punishable by between seven and 15 years in prison.
The case follows similar incidents of illegal surrogacy in Cambodia. In July last year, an Australian woman and two Cambodian collaborators were each sentenced to 18 months in prison for running a surrogacy ring (see BioNews 912).
Speaking to The Guardian, Rodrigo Montero, gender adviser at the United Nations Development Programme, implied the case was bittersweet. While it proves the law is being enforced, it also suggests it is still being broken. 'The bad news is that it proves that a hidden international surrogacy industry is still operating in Cambodia,' said Montero.