Charged with human trafficking for serving as surrogate mothers on behalf of Chinese clients, 32 Cambodian women have just been freed from detention after agreeing to keep their babies.

An official at the Cambodian National Committee for Counter Trafficking in persons (NCCT) at the Ministry of Interior told French Press Agency (AFP): “They have promised to raise their own children and not to put them up for sale.” In addition, he declares that if the women do not respect the terms of the agreement, they’ll risk a penalty of a minimum of 15 years imprisonment. In his opinion, they were freed on “humanitarian grounds“, since many of them were pregnant.

Because surrogacy has been banned in Cambodia since 2016, the young women who were arrested last June during a police raid in Phnom Penh, will still be tried in court, along with 5 employees accused of being intermediaries in managing the trafficking business.

The surrogacy business boom occurred when China eased up on the one-child policy. Since approximately 90 million Chinese women now have the right to have a second child but are no longer of child-bearing age, and the law prohibits surrogacy, couples who can afford it, have turned to foreign surrogacy networks. South-East Asia is the most popular destination for surrogacy, since there are no restrictions for singles or same-sex couples. In addition the young women are often facing financial difficulties and the medical costs are low.

Surrogacy in this region of the world has progressively been banned, following numerous scandals and criticisms. In 2015, it was banned in Thailand, and two years ago Cambodia also outlawed the practice, partly because of the increasing demand. Only last month, eleven surrogate mothers were arrested in the country.