Advertisements have been posted on an Instagram page entitled "Sale of Baby and Child" that seem to be mediating the sale and purchase of children.
These ads caused a stir on social media yesterday and although the page was taken down a few hours later, many users saved and re-posted screenshots of their harrowing content.
Each post seems to have a bitter history behind it. Beneath the picture of a beautiful girl with dark hair, in a blissful slumber, are written the painful words: "Sale of a two-year-old girl; send a message if you have made your decision and don't waste our time.” Others state "A four-day-old baby girl for free, with no payments”, “Selling a 20-day-old boy" and "Newborn baby boy from the city of Arak, two months old, sold with the right to a birth certificate”.
Significantly, people have also expressed an interest. "Please send me a message if you have a baby girl with white skin and colored eyes," commented one female user.
Another wrote, "The money is ready."
Who Are the Intermediaries?
Under the guise of a customer I called the number listed under one of the posts.
"There are a lot of baby girls available,” said the woman on the other end of the line. “A lot of supply and low prices: between twenty to forty million tomans [US$1,100 to $2,200] for girls, and sixty-five million tomans [US$3,600] for boys."
The woman explained this price is for babies without identification documents and of course, those with birth certificates cost more. During our conversation someone intervenes at the other end, and our discussion is abruptly cut off.
Some social media users are skeptical about the veracity of the revelations. A Twitter user with 20,000 followers who goes by the name Dr. Laxative wrote that there was a suspicious coincidence between the sudden appearance of baby sales pages on Instagram and the request of Iranian MPs to filter out this social network.
But the phenomenon of buying and selling children in Iran is not new. Take a walk around any one of the hospitals in the south of Tehran, and eventually you will come across a passerby who whispers into your ear, offering you the chance to buy a beautiful child.
The proposed child can be a toddler or a five-year-old, with pale skin and bright blue eyes or a pleasant southern tan, worth anything from two million to one hundred million tumans [US$111 to $5,500]. If you're tired of wandering around Ziaian Hospital or Bab ol-Havaej Clinic or any of the other medical centers, all you have to do now is browse on Instagram for an hour instead to find the baby you desire.
Navid, a breaking news reporter for one of Tehran's leading news agencies, told IranWire that this particular Instagram page was not real and was meant to attract advertisers.
According to this reporter, these intermediaries normally shut down their pages at the first hint of any threat, and reappear with new names and details to resume their activities. Where transactions are carried out through these agencies, about 70 percent of the profit goes into their pocket.
On May 20 of this year, Khorasan’s deputy minister of social affairs and welfare said that the purchase and sale of babies is indeed carried out on the margins of hospitals and by intermediaries. In an interview with ISNA, Gholamhossein Haghdadi added that 200 children who had been bought and sold had recently been handed over to the welfare offices of the province once their cases had been reviewed.
Navid believes that sometimes there is no gang or a complex business model behind this activity, and it is simply driven by poverty. “With the increase in poverty, buying and selling babies is being practiced a lot,” he says.
"My colleague was informed that one of his relatives had dealt with a broker and even exchanged a deposit to buy a child. It was difficult to convince the buyer to cooperate. They set a trap for the salesman, who was a well-known broker, and eventually caught the criminal gang with the help of the police after a long pursuit."
This journalist believes that most of the transactions related to buying and selling of children now take place on Instagram.
"If an agent is to introduce the buyer to the direct seller,” he says, “he will demand 200,000 tomans to 5 million tomans by way of an introductory fee. He gives the name of the buyer to the seller and exchange their phone numbers. He sees neither the seller nor the buyer. But if the mediator is a professional broker, who will receive the main bulk of the money. These brokers often focus on illiterate and extremely poor, helpless women so that they can control the situation. But brokers at this level in the hospital or registry offices also have connections, and spend money on issuing fake birth certificates in the name of the new ‘parents’."
In May this year, Massoud Faridi, Iran’s deputy head of social affairs and welfare, announced several meetings would be held with FATA (the Iranian cyber police), police, the judiciary, and the prosecutor's office to deal decisively with child trafficking gangs on social media, in light of several recent cases that could lead to a prosecution. Both parties involved in such a transaction, he said, are guilty of an indictable crime.
Babies Lost - Sometimes Forever, Sometimes Not
Navid introduces me to a woman named Roya Chasebi. After filing a complaint with Khazaneh police station, she is looking to find a baby that she sold three years ago and now regrets having given up.
Chasebi does not especially like to talk, and she describes the story briefly: “Because of poverty, I was obliged to be temporarily married to an addict,” she says. “I did this in order to have a place to stay. But when he found out that I was pregnant, he kicked me out of his house.
“After a lot of stress and wandering, I found the address of a doctor who offered illegal abortions. But the doctor asked me for eight million tomans [$450], which of course I did not have. The sister of a friend of mine ,who seemed to have a lot of knowledge about this matter advised me to keep the baby and leave it with someone when the baby was born."
Roya sold her baby for 20 million tomans [$1200]. But she quickly regretted it and reported the matter to the police. No trace of her son was ever found.
Donya Karimi, who runs an Instagram account called "Support of the Missing", told IranWire that after looking at police reports on the children whom she was following their story, she had often found that these children had been stolen for the purposes of being sold later.
"I have been following Melika's story and have not slept for several nights in a row," she said, referring to the fate of one particular missing girl. “Melika was abducted in front of her father's house in the Sisabad neighborhood of Mashhad in early August 2017, and later found near a park in Isfahan. Her mother later told me that a respected Kuwaiti man, who was in the construction business, had asked his relatives to introduce him to a poor child so that he could take care of her. Friends had entrusted this task to a couple in Mashhad, but the couple took the opportunity to steal Melika when she was playing in one of the alleys."
Donya Karimi was informed about the incident through Melika's family and published the photo of the girl on her page. Melika's image has been in the spotlight for a year and a half now, and eventually when the builder's relatives saw Melika they realized what he had done and publicly denounced the kidnappers.
The couple were asked to return Melika to her family immediately. "They said they weren't after kidnapping anyone,” Karimi recalls, “they wanted to take care of a homeless child. So the couple abandoned Melika on one of the streets of Osfahan and ran away."
Although welfare officials say child trafficking is a crime and can be prosecuted, the FATA do not appear to be concerned about the mass arrest or takedown of child trafficking gangs in Iran. Instagram pages titled Baby and Baby Shopping, which get noticed very quickly, may be followed by FATA’s officers, but comments about selling children posted under popular posts have now become commonplace.