Babies for sale: ASEAN’s insidious underground baby market

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Recent arrests in Indonesia show that the illegal sale of babies is still taking place in ASEAN. How can governments tackle a hidden problem that transcends ASEAN’s borders?

By Oliver Ward

On the 12th of October, four Indonesians in Surabaya were arrested over their involvement in an extensive baby selling operation conducted over Instagram. The arrests thrust ASEAN’s murky baby selling activities into the international spotlight and serve to demonstrate how little progress has been made since the last high-profile baby selling incident.

In a case which sounds all too familiar, the four Indonesians, posing as a family welfare agency, posted pictures of ultrasounds and babies on Instagram and prompted potential buyers to make contact via Whatsapp.

Police intercepted one transaction in which a 22-year-old mother attempted to sell her 11-month-old baby for 15 million rupiah (US$985). The four arrested face up to 15 years behind bars for violating Indonesia’s child protection laws.

New-born babies are bought and sold in an extensive underground black market

In January 2013, a similar syndicate was broken up by police in West Jakarta. Six women were detained for buying babies from mothers, forging their identity documents, and selling them on to wealthy international buyers at a higher price.

The mothers sold their babies to these baby traffickers, receiving between US$160 to US$250 for the child. The traffickers would then sell them on for around US$7,000.

The traffickers searched Indonesia’s maternity wards for unmarried women. Many of the children were already advertised and sold before they were born.

The scale of the market could be huge

The involvement of the six women in 2013 and the four arrested this year show signs that the baby-selling market is a vast industry. Firstly, the women arrested in 2013 had been in operation for around 20 years, selling around 12 babies a month.

The operation uncovered in Surabaya this year was also a sizeable operation. They had accumulated around 700 followers on Instagram and featured photos of the babies as well as their locations.

Part of the difficulty in assessing the scale of the market lies in the lack of information surrounding the buyers. Hartini Zainudin, a children’s rights activist who rescued her own daughter, Zara, from baby traffickers told ASEAN Today.

She said, “no one knows where the final destination of children bought and sold [is]”. During the 2013 raids, a plane ticket was found for Singapore. There were also buyers from Australia. In the most recent police investigation in Surabaya, a buyer was also discovered in Bali.

What fuels ASEAN’s baby market?

Malaysia and Indonesia have strict adoption laws designed to end baby farming. However, instead of solving the problem, they have pushed it underground.

Foreigners are unable to legally adopt children from Malaysia unless they reside in the country for the duration of the process, which could take years. In Indonesia, prospective parents must have resided in Indonesia for two years.

Strict adoption requirements erect barriers in the legal adoption channels. This, combined with ineffective policing, fuels the underground baby market.

Hartini Zainudin described how Malaysian mothers and brokers travel to Singapore to sell their babies without scrutiny. “Malaysian pregnant mothers travel with agents to Singapore with legal documents, drop the babies… and travel back alone”, she said, “No one checks”.

When Zainudin raised the issue with the authorities she was met with indifference.

The proliferation of an underground market has allowed criminals to buy children for use in child prostitution and begging syndicates abroad in places like Thailand.

There are new fears that following the earthquake in Indonesia, a large number of newly orphaned children are at risk of falling into the hands of baby traffickers.

Ahmad Hidayat runs a foundation in charge of a kindergarten and orphanage. He told The Australian that his organisation has been inundated with over 500 requests to adopt children. Many of the buyers were “pushy”.

Malaysia and Indonesia need to invest politically and financially in a lasting solution

There have been attempts within Indonesia and Malaysia to strengthen child protection laws. In both countries, the punishments were made more severe for those convicted of trafficking children for sexual purposes.

However, victim identification and reporting mechanisms are not present. Out of 305 trafficking investigations opened in Indonesia cited in a 2015 US State Department report, more than 200 of them were closed without further action.

Part of the problem is there is no formal protocol for handling child trafficking reports. Another issue is that prosecutors and judges simply do not know how to prosecute trafficking cases. Further training on how to handle baby trafficking cases is necessary across Indonesia’s legal system.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is also limited collaboration between ministries on cases that transcend regional boundaries. In Indonesia, ineffective coordination between judges, police, and the anti-trafficking task force means cases often slip through the cracks.

In Malaysia, the same problem persists. Malaysia does not even have a National Plan of Action (NPA) on child protection. An NPA is essential for producing a clear legal framework, organising agency coordination, identifying victims, collecting data and implementing strategies to combat the sale and trafficking of children. The first step to combating the sale of children must be to implement an NPA with the help of UNICEF and other international NGO’s.

Corruption also lies at the heart of the issue. Indonesia’s “Count Every Child Project” sought to issue every child born in the country with identity documents. The rationale was that this would stop unregistered births and decrease the number of vulnerable children.

But corrupt officials help smugglers traffic children. Falsified documents are routinely issued used in the trafficking and sale of babies across the region.

The Philippines is relaxing adoption laws

In an attempt to curb illegal baby sales and child trafficking, the Philippines is reforming adoption laws.

In 2013, reports emerged of pregnant women selling their babies outside hospitals and baby traffickers selling Filipino babies to foreigners.

In April, the House of Representatives appointed a task force headed by Vilma Santos-Recto to work with welfare groups in the country to reform the adoption process.

The rationale is that by making the process more streamlined, it will facilitate domestic and international adoptions, reducing the number of international buyers that turn to the black market for children.

Among the proposed amendments is the introduction of a stiff six to twelve-year prison sentence for anyone that does not comply with the official safeguards for adoption.

The eyes of ASEAN’s child welfare agencies will be on the Philippines to see if adoption reform can bring baby sales down. But in truth, the Philippines can do little in isolation.

Tackling a trans-national problem like international baby trafficking requires an international effort. The Philippines can make its adoption process easier, but it will mean nothing if international adopters cannot bring them back to their home countries without issue.

Currently, Australian parents wishing to adopt a baby from the Philippines has to wait between three and five years to finalise the paperwork in Australia. Without a concerted effort from all the countries in the region, legislative efforts will be slow to reduce demand for black market babies.