A baby for $200: The shattered lives behind ASEAN’s shocking trade in children

Social media and widespread poverty are fuelling an underground trade in babies in both Malaysia and the Philippines. Some will find new lives with childless couples, but others face a hard life on the streets. 

By Argee Abadines

In Malaysia, you can buy a baby for as little as RM6,750 (US$1,500). This backdoor trade has long existed but new technology, such as social media, has made it even easier. The market is also more challenging than ever for the police force to dismantle,

According to Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, there have been scores of arrests since 2010, including medical practitioners such as doctors and nurses. One such example was a raid in Kampung Nahkoda, Selayang where police discovered a syndicate that had already been operating for two years. They arrested 21 women. 

So how exactly does it work? A recent investigation showed that babies could be bought from secret social media groups, similar to regular online communities for buying and selling. In these groups, a catalogue of pregnant women share the details of how late they are in their pregnancy and potential clients can choose infants based on race, gender and weight.

Sometimes these arrangements will be negotiated with the mothers directly, but often the contact will be with a syndicate. Interested parties talk to an agent who will do all the fraudulent paperwork – for a fee. Buyers can choose from their list of pregnant women, including those from neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, and the Philippines. This is a major and dangerous form of people-trafficking.

The easy choice?

And not just dangerous, but illegal. Child trafficking is a criminal offence in Malaysia under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007. Furthermore, the country ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995, thereby agreeing to a number of protections for the rights of young people and babies.

However, the lucrative business continues, as agents work to meet the requirements of anyone looking to buy a baby. Fair-skinned male children tend to command a higher price.

One reason why baby selling has a long history in Malaysia is the country’s long and complicated adoption process. Childless couples simply choose the easier option. Another possible reason for the rampant trade is that adoption carries a stigma and couples want to have children that look like them. The only way for the country to tackle this is to create programmes and awareness campaigns, which let people follow the legal route in a relatively straightforward manner.

At the same time, the system works because there is collusion between corrupt police, politicians and healthcare facilities. For example, healthcare centres agree to prepare the necessary health documents, such as the birth certificate needed for the application to the Malaysian National Registry Department. Insiders within government departments then process the falsified documents, and the baby’s paperwork becomes official. This whole transaction can cost around RM 20,000 (US$4,500).

Life on the streets

The big danger is children being passed to street beggar syndicates that sedate them so they sleep, or to paedophiles or those involved in sex trafficking. The lives of these innocent children are often destroyed even before they are born. The lucky ones end up with good couples who just want to have a child, but this is a minority. Meanwhile, the Malaysian government seems to have a lukewarm take on this matter, as they believe it is not a big problem.

The Philippines has similar problems, though compared to Malaysia the process of baby selling is less sophisticated and there will just be a ‘broker’ who will negotiate and close deals between buyers and sellers. Again it is illegal, and a violation of the Republic Act of 8552: Law on Domestic Adoption as well as Republic Act 9208: Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.

Avoiding adoption

Most of the customers are childless couples who want to avoid the lengthy and costly process of adoption. The vendors are young pregnant teenage women who know they won’t be able to take care of and raise their babies properly. Instead, they sell them on for anything from PHP10,000 (USD$200) and upwards.

Baby kidnapping is also rampant, and there are cases of people disguising themselves as nurses to take newborn babies. Luckily, new technology is now being used in some hospitals to tackle this terrible problem. Hospitals give newborns a mechanical tag, with a partner piece worn by their mothers. If taken too far apart, these set off an alarm.

Sadly as internet penetration continues to grow in the country, and more people use smartphones, this illicit trade is likely to continue to grow in numbers and sophistication. And the country’s administration must look it as just one of many social ills requiring their attention. Meanwhile, the innocent babies of southeast Asia will continue to pay a terrible price.