Paid to carry a stranger’s baby - then forced to raise it
They have since been released - but on the condition that they bring up the children themselves. The penalty is up to 20 years in jail.
Most surrogate mothers have already given birth at least once, so Thida is unusual.
In her early 20s and married to a repairman in a village outside Phnom Penh, she could never afford to have children. But if she earned $10,000 by giving birth to a foreigner’s child everything would change; by becoming a surrogate mother she would have enough money to start her own family.
So when a representative from a surrogacy agency visited her village she put her name forward - and was accepted.
“If I had known it was illegal, I would never have done it,” Thida says.
In fact, by the time the fertilised egg from a Chinese couple was implanted in her womb, at the end of 2017, commercial surrogacy had already been banned for more than a year, but the ban had only recently begun to be enforced.
Once pregnant, Thida was taken to a crowded villa in the capital’s expensive Russey Keo district. Soon there were 32 other pregnant mothers there, living five to a room. “The rooms were so small there was no space to walk,” she says. Those who were heavily pregnant wanted to pace up and down, but there was no room - and they weren’t allowed outside.
Then in June the police pounced. First employees of the surrogacy agency were taken away and charged with trafficking. Before long, the mothers were also charged, apart from one - a Thai woman - who was deported.
Thida started feeling contractions late one night in October, and was taken to hospital by ambulance the following morning. When the baby was born, Thida was eager to see his face, so the doctor put him on her chest for five minutes before taking him away to be cleaned.
“He is my first child, I really love him so much,” she says. “I felt awful that he came into the world and was imprisoned in the police hospital with me for months.”
A dozen women who had already delivered their babies were put in a big room, with hammocks for beds. By bribing the guards, Thida’s mother-in-law, Sre-Oun, was able to make regular visits, bringing nappies, fruit and powdered milk. The mothers had not been fed well enough to breastfeed, she says.
Then, three days after the birth, the baby’s Chinese parents arrived. Thida caught a glimpse of the wife from the hospital window. The father gave a hospital guard a $100 bribe and entered the ward with a Khmer translator.
“He held the baby and cried like his heart was broken,” says Thida. “I really felt so sorry for him.”
He spent 20 minutes with his son, then rejoined his wife outside. The meeting was so frantic that Thida didn’t exchange phone numbers with him.
Then in December, Thida and the boy were allowed to go home.
Before leaving, Thida and the other mothers were told that they must raise the children until their 18th birthday or face up to 20 years in jail. It was made clear that they will be continuously monitored to check that they have not given the child to the intended parents.
Even though she has been given no choice in the matter, Thida seems to have few regrets. She now thinks of the boy as her own child, even though she knows there is no genetic link.
But his arrival poses a dire financial problem. Her husband’s earnings of $250 per month are insufficient for bringing up a child, and because the baby wasn’t handed over to the intended parents, Thida never received the promised $10,000.
She would like to scrape together enough money to start a grocery business, in order to bring in a second income, but it’s unclear where that capital will come from.
Luckily, her husband loves the boy too.
“My husband always plays with the baby straight after he gets home from work,” says Thida. “He helps take care of him at night, so I can sleep.”
And Sre-Oun, the mother-in-law, is also deeply attached to the new member of the household.
“I don’t mind that he is not related to us, it’s now impossible to give him away,” she says. “He is so cute, even when he is screaming for people to play with him!”
When Thida took the baby to the health centre for a check-up, the staff called him a “Barang’s son”, the Khmer term for a mixed-race baby with a white father.
“I don’t tell them that he is lighter skinned because he is actually Chinese,” she says.
She likes it when market vendors coo over him. “They say that he has his father’s face, which is why he is very handsome,” she says. “It makes me feel so happy that people say he looks like his father.”
She has no plans to tell them how he was conceived, and won’t tell the boy either - until he is 18 anyway, and can decide for himself whether to look for his biological parents.
But it’s possible that the parents could reappear earlier than that. It’s unlikely that they know where Thida lives, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could find out.
Thida is relaxed about this prospect and would not try to stop them visiting.
“I know they love the baby as well, but they cannot take him away from me,” she says.
But Sre-Oun is more wary. “I am afraid that they will steal him away from us,” she says.
In a village on the Mekong river, many hours from Phnom Penh, a young family has recently been reunited.
Sok and his wife, Neth, live with their two daughters aged six and two, in a traditional Cambodian house on stilts. The floors are made of bamboo and the walls are pieces of corrugated iron. A naked light bulb hangs from the rafters.
This one room is home to 17 people - and it is for this reason that Neth went away to Phnom Penh to become a surrogate mother: to earn enough to build a new house. On Sok’s meagre income as a fisherman in the Mekong, it’s not clear they will ever be able to afford it.
Neth, heavily pregnant, was released at the same time as Thida. She doesn’t know anything about the intended parents of the child she is carrying - most were Chinese, but one couple is known to have been Japanese, and one Angolan. She may find out when she gives birth.
Sok, her husband, was always against the surrogacy plan. When Neth first mentioned it, he told her not to do it. He’d heard from a relative about the ban and thought it was too risky.
“OK, I’ll give up the surrogacy idea - I’ll earn money by being a maid in the city instead,” Neth told him.
But she went to the city and stuck to her original plan. When she called Sok to tell him the embryo had been implanted, he says he was speechless with shock.
Not long afterwards, the villa where the mothers were living was raided and the story was all over the news. Some people in the village recognised Neth and the rumour spread. For this reason, she plans to tell the child how he came into existence. “If I don’t tell him, the neighbours will,” she says.
Like Thida and her family, Sok and Neth now face a grave financial challenge.
Neth received $500 as a down payment when she became a surrogate mother, but much of that appears to have gone already.
She says they have saved $50 to pay for hospital fees, but it won’t be enough.
Sok’s income varies from $5 on a bad day, to $25 on a good one. The last month has not been good, but February is a better month for fishing. In an ideal world he would earn enough to feed the new baby and to put some aside for schooling. “I don’t want my children to grow up uneducated like me,” he says.
Neth is still considering looking for a job in Phnom Penh after the baby arrives, but she would first have to get permission. Currently she has to present herself each month at the provincial police office. Before moving away she would need the authorities to allow her to check in at a different police office near her new address.
She is hoping to breastfeed the baby, in order to save money on formula milk. An NGO called Agape International Missions, which has been helping the surrogate mothers since they were arrested, has given them all a basket of baby clothes, some nappies and two towels. While Thida took the formula milk gladly, and was disappointed there was not more, Neth has refused it.
As for the possibility of contact with the intended parents, Neth flatly rules it out. “I wouldn’t let them meet the baby because they are strangers to me,” she says.
She wouldn’t even consider receiving financial assistance from them.
“I am very scared to receive any money or have anything to do with them,” she says.
Sok knows that money is going to be very tight with an extra mouth to feed, but he won’t let his family see that he is worried.
“Life is about to get harder,” he says.
The commercial surrogacy industry took off in Cambodia after it had been banned in Thailand and India in 2015, and Nepal in 2016.
By chance this roughly coincided with the relaxation of China’s one-child policy. Suddenly many Chinese couples could now legally have another child, but some were unable to do so naturally.
“They’re too old to give birth themselves, but their financial and social situations are better now to bring up children,” says Liang Bo, chairman of the Shenzhou Zhongtai fertility and surrogacy agency.
But as surrogacy is not permitted in China, Shenzhou Zhongtai and other Chinese agencies began to focus on Cambodia.
“We have helped not just Chinese parents, but American, Canadian, Thai, Japanese, Nepalese… there were two Russian couples who had Aids, they used our services and successfully had children through surrogates,” Liang Bo says.
Since Cambodia’s ban he has stopped hiring Cambodian surrogates, he says. He now tells clients “not to take the cheap option”, but to opt for the US or Ukraine.
Liang Bo says the 33 surrogates arrested in June had nothing to do with him, they had all been hired by smaller agencies.
“All those agencies sprang up in the past two or three years. There are maybe 500 or 600 of them. Sometimes, there’s only one person behind each agency,” he says.
Nonetheless, on the night of the arrest he started getting desperate calls from couples who wanted information and couldn’t get through to their agents.
“I tried to help but I didn’t recognise the names they had given me. Ah Hong? Ah Liang? They’re just fake names that agents used to contact the clients. It’s a terrible loss for those people who wanted to have children.”
It’s likely that each couple had paid upwards of $70,000, and that their money has now been lost. But worst of all, their child will now be born, and grow up, in someone else’s family.
Chou Bun Eng, Cambodia’s deputy interior minister, says she knows some of the intended parents have managed to track down the surrogate mothers. The government is monitoring them, she says.
“If we wanted to arrest them, we could have done it a long time ago, but we will only arrest them if they smuggle the children out of the country.”
But there is nothing to stop the intended parents financially supporting the surrogate mothers, she says.
“They can pay for the formula milk, school fees - we can’t prevent them from doing charity.”
This opens up the possibility of the surrogate mothers becoming caretaker parents until the child reaches 18 and is able to decide whether to stay in Cambodia, or join the biological parents abroad.
Chou Bun Eng argues that Cambodia had to ban commercial surrogacy because it is a form of trafficking - she is also the vice-chair of the government’s Anti-Human Trafficking Committee. Wherever commercial surrogacy occurs “children are victims” she says.
“They negotiate the price in the womb. They don’t care about the children because the children are like goods. If the children are handicapped the price decreases. They will give them away and take no responsibility for them. Sometimes the children will be sold again to someone else.”
The mothers themselves often don’t know who paid for the baby, she says, they only know the agency. And in the government’s view the intended parents are not really parents anyway.
“In Cambodian law, the woman who is pregnant - the baby in her womb is her child,” she says.
The way Chou Bun Eng sees it, arresting the surrogate mothers was a way of protecting them.
“The surrogate mothers carried these children. Some are breastfeeding their children and take care of them every day. I think that they love them as their own children.”
And if they do not love them, she says, “then we hold that against them”.
Bopha, 37, carried a baby for a Dutch gay couple soon after the ban on surrogacy was declared but before the crackdown began. Like Thida and Neth she did it because she was poor, but she disagrees with the view that surrogacy is a form of human trafficking.
“Surrogate mothers also do it to help other people who aren’t able to have babies. Maybe the parents are too old, or they’re a gay couple. Surrogates are employed to help them, so to use the term ‘trafficking’ I think is too much.”
Though she still lives in a corrugated iron hut, the money she earned came in very useful. She paid back some debts, bought some land, and was able to set herself up as a seller of cosmetics.
She says she is still in touch with one of the fathers of the baby she bore. He came to Cambodia to look after her while she was pregnant and was present at the birth. Now they are friends on Facebook and he sends photographs from time to time.
“I get to see the baby grow up. In the videos I saw him learn to walk… learn how to run. He has also learned how to feed himself.”
Bopha misses the baby. “In my mind he is my son,” she says.
She wonders what it would be like to be one of the surrogate mothers. “I just don’t understand why they need to punish the women like this.”
Va-Tei also gave birth to a child last year, but her relationship with the intended parents - a gay couple in the US - was very different.
To help get the baby out of the country, Va-Tei had to get him a passport. In the passport office, she had to hide his face so that officials wouldn’t notice he didn’t have Cambodian features. Then they all flew to Singapore together. The baby was handed over once the plane was airborne.
It was clear that the men didn’t trust her, Va-Tei says, describing their journey to the airport in Singapore, before they flew to the US. “That was my last chance to hold the baby. The couple didn’t want me to, so I asked the tuk-tuk driver to translate that they shouldn’t worry. I wasn’t going to take the baby away.”
Later, at the airport, she had to walk close to one of the fathers, to give the impression that he was her husband, and that she was seeing him off. Then they disappeared with the child and she flew back to Cambodia alone.
Va-Tei vaguely remembers the baby’s name. “It is quite long and difficult to pronounce. Once I laid awake all night to try and remember the name of the baby. I just remember the sound ‘ni-co-la.’”
“Yes, Nicholas, the baby boy.”
She left a message with the baby: “I wish that you will have a bright future. I wish you will have a good job.” She thinks that it was in the baby’s interests to leave for the US, as she wouldn’t have been able to afford to feed him properly, but she still has regrets.
“I really felt so sad that I had to give the baby away, I really didn’t want to. The baby was so cute and I had only one photo of him.”
And she made a big mistake: “I gave that photo to the couple, so now I don’t have anything to remember him by.”
Va-Tei still thinks about Nicholas from time to time. “I think about how he is growing up, what he looks like. The parents don’t contact me. Some other surrogate mothers are sent photos of the child growing up. But for me… nothing at all.”
Some names have been changed