PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Eleven women allegedly paid to be surrogate mothers have been released on bail after agreeing to keep the babies, Cambodia's trafficking czar said on Wednesday (May 15), as the country seeks to regulate the womb-for-hire trade.
The women were charged in November with human trafficking and acting as intermediaries for surrogacy agents, after they were discovered in a raid on a house in the capital Phnom Penh.
They have been in custody since the raid, with some giving birth behind bars.
Cambodia issued a snap ban on commercial surrogacy in 2016 after neighbouring Thailand pulled the plug on the trade the previous year - putting an abrupt end to a thriving industry for hopeful parents - many from Australia and the United States.
An Australian nurse who ran a surrogacy clinic was jailed for 18 months, and quietly released last year after the term was served.
But demand for commercial surrogacy remains high after China eased its one-child policy and shadow markets in Cambodia continue to offer the service.
According to an agency, desperate couples - mostly from China - are willing to pay between US$40,000 (S$54,700) and US$100,000 to surrogacy agents to find a Cambodian woman who can carry their child in her womb.
The 11 women arrested in November refused to tell the authorities who they were carrying the babies for, according to Chou Bun Eng, vice-president of the National Anti-Human Trafficking Committee.
"They were released on bail last month after they promised not to give up their babies," she told AFP.
But the charges against them stand and the women could be prosecuted at any time if "they sell the babies", she said, adding that a draft surrogacy law is still under discussion, and could see the trade formally outlawed.
Rights groups have criticised the authorities for coercing women to raise babies who bear no biological ties to them in order to avoid jail time.
But Chou Bun Eng said Cambodian law means they must take care of the babies.
"They are the mother of the children," she added.
Surrogates are typically from poor communities and receive a fraction of the sum paid to agents - typically between US$10,0000 and US$15,000 to carry a child to term.
Sam Everingham, founder of Families Through Surrogacy, an Australian non-profit, said the case of the 11 women is "tragic", with the surrogates and intended parents being the victims.
"The young infants are simply collateral damage," he told AFP. "The real felons here are the surrogacy agents and agencies who convinced naive surrogates and intended parents" to act in an environment where the practice is unlawful.
In December, 32 Cambodian women paid to carry babies for Chinese clients were also released on bail after agreeing to keep the children.