Kampong Speu, Cambodia – Shortly before 24-year-old Lee left for China, her parents borrowed $300 from a lender in their village to buy a suitcase for their pregnant daughter and clothes for the baby she was expecting.
Her mother, Poch Leng, was anxious because she would not be by Lee’s side when she gave birth to the child she was carrying for a couple from mainland China.
But days before Lee’s flight in June, she was arrested in Cambodia‘s capital, Phnom Penh. She was one of 32 pregnant women held for surrogacy, along with a Chinese broker suspected of coordinating the trade.
“I felt sorry for her,” Poch said recalling what happened. “And [I] worried about her.”
Surrogacy was banned in Cambodia in 2016, but with formal legislation still under discussion, demand from Chinese couples looking for fertility services that are illegal at home, coupled with the lure for Cambodian women of potentially being paid thousands of dollars for carrying someone else’s baby, has pushed the industry underground.
Women who are caught are punished under anti-trafficking legislation, facing steep prison sentences and fines.
“It’s not only the rights of the women we’re concerned about, it’s the rights of [the] baby,” said Chou Bun Eng, vice chair of Cambodia’s National Anti-Human Trafficking Committee. “And it’s not exactly rights of the women but their willingness: they want to get the money [compensation], but they’re forgetting about the rights of the baby.”
Many surrogates come from poor families, where work in the garment and light manufacturing industries brings in a minimum wage of $170 a month.
Lee’s father, Roen Ry, helped build statues and novelty items at the same factory where Lee worked before she became pregnant.
Roen, 43, said work in the factory was inconsistent, so Lee and her husband struggled to find a permanent home and raise their four-year-old daughter, Chandy.
She agreed to a surrogate arrangement in the hope that she and her husband would finally be able to afford to move out of the factory’s dormitory housing and build their own home.
The $10,000 she had been promised would also help pay the monthly medical bills for Poch’s diabetes, and ease the family’s debts.
Lek Sopheak, a union leader in the district where the father and daughter worked, said he knew of nearly 20 women from the district who agreed to work as surrogates despite the criminalisation.
“I’ve heard the discussion among the workers, and one of my colleagues reported to me, that there is a broker among the workers who said [factory workers] can do [the] surrogacy service and become a surrogate mother,” Lek told Al Jazeera.
According to Lek, the broker worked in local factories and served as a surrogate mother herself, recruiting women with offers of $10,000 and a break from the grind of the factory floor.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify Lek’s claims, but Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said representatives reported surrogate recruitment within the provinces.
“Many garment workers in Cambodia carry heavy responsibility for their family, and their families often fall in the debt, so they have to find all the possibilities to make money and support their family,” she said. “Their income is still low compared to what they would make as a surrogate mother.”
The demand for the trade is largely coming from China where commercial surrogacy is banned and there are long waits for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and other fertility treatments.
More than 70,000 couples went overseas last year looking specifically for fertility services, according to the South China Morning Post.
Cambodia first became involved in surrogacy when the trade took off in neighbouring Thailand. It was banned there in 2015 following high-profile cases that raised ethical questions.
In Phnom Penh, at least two urban clinics – First Fertility Phnom Penh and Royal Fertility Hospital – provided fertility information and services in Mandarin.
Chinese fertility service providers such as Universal Surrogate Births advertise connections to the Royal Fertility Hospital in WeChat posts, while the fertility information portal Tai Jia Yun described Cambodia’s lack of surrogacy legislation as an advantage making it easier for couples to access such services.
Last month, 11 pregnant women were arrested along with four Cambodians after another raid.
In both cases, Cambodian authorities said the women were carrying babies for Chinese clients but admitted it was difficult to track down the couples or those who had brokered the deals.
Discussions on new legislation have been going on in Cambodia since early 2017. The law was reportedly finalised in March but was postponed two months later for further study.
Chou, of the National Anti-Human Trafficking Committee, said the new legislation would aim to govern all elements of the industry, including (IVF), sperm banks and the banned breast milk trade, but existing human trafficking and general criminal law would still be used to punish offenders.
“We are still thinking about how to make the new law or the amendment law to be consistent with existing law,” she said.
Chou acknowledged that many Cambodians are unaware of the ban on commercial surrogacy, and many were confused about what was legal and what was not.
She said the government was trying to get more information out to more people, most recently via text notifications on major telecom networks.
Poch and Roen had never heard of surrogacy arrangements, nor the criminal punishments surrogates could face, before their daughter was arrested.
But now they warn other villagers to stay away from the practice, no matter how lucrative it might seem.
Lee was released from pre-trial detentions and returned to her Kampong Speu village last week with her newborn son, but none of the money that she had hoped would change her life.
The only person who doesn’t know the story of Lee’s new son is her daughter.
She’s just thrilled to have a new playmate.
“My granddaughter Chandy looks so happy now that she’s got a brother,” Poch said. “She does not go anywhere now, she just holds him.”