When an unwanted baby is born or an abandoned infant is found in Kuala Lumpur, Hartini Zainudin is the woman many people call.

For almost a decade, Hartini has picked up unwanted babies from across the Malaysian capital and helped arrange for them to be adopted.

But this year, she is yet to receive a single call for help.

"Before I used to pick up abandoned babies maybe once a month, twice a month," she told Al Jazeera. "This year is the first year I haven't even had one case of anyone giving their child up for adoption. Not one. And it scares me."

Hartini has good reason to be scared.

With the number of children born out of wedlock rising in Malaysia and unmarried mothers still shunned in this Muslim-majority country, she fears sinister forces are at play.

Instead of unwanted babies being put up for adoption, Hartini believes more people are selling babies to traffickers.

With an infant's price determined by gender, race and skin colour, the traffickers then sell the babies on to the highest bidder.

Activists say that while many babies go to childless couples, it's impossible to know how many end up in the hands of criminal syndicates who force them into sex work or begging when they grow older.

Hartini, who has received death threats from traffickers, explained that they have become more sophisticated in recent years.

"Before, single mothers wouldn't know where to turn. Now you have these traffickers going into the hospitals, going into villages," she said.

Child rights advocates say Malaysia is now a hub for a cross-border baby trade, with infants brought in from other countries and sold to people overseas, in addition to those born and sold locally.

"It's not a local syndicate now. It's international," Hartini explained. "People in Singapore want to buy babies. Americans and all sorts of people want to come here and get babies. There are loopholes in the system that the public is more aware of."

"I think the traffickers have gotten wiser and they realise you can get a lot more money."

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When she first started rescuing babies at risk of being trafficked in 2007, Hartini said some were sold for just 20 ringgit, or less than $5.

An Al Jazeera investigation has found that prices now vary widely, with some infants fetching more than $7,000.

Our undercover reporters discovered that traffickers regularly offer to help buyers falsify birth certificates, so that the buyer is recognised as the baby's legal parent.

Hartini said the demand to buy babies on the black market has increased because many childless couples consider Malaysia's official adoption process too convoluted and time-consuming.

She often receives calls from people anxious to become parents, asking whether they should buy a baby from traffickers.

She understands their desperation, but advises them against buying babies as a way to create a family.

"I'm always telling them 'please don't buy'," she explained.

But when confronted with a baby about to be sold to a begging syndicate, the activist became a reluctant buyer herself, paying traffickers in order to save the little girl.

She informed the police and the government's Social Welfare Department, and decided to adopt the girl.

But she wishes she was never confronted with a situation where she had to buy a baby.

"Baby selling has an element of exploitation because the child has no voice and therefore it should be considered trafficking. The voice of the child is not heard …

"Nobody asked the baby. You say, 'I'll make the decision for you'. You don't have that right."

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