Organ trafficking: the hidden breed of human trafficking

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By Basheer Luqman Olarewaju

The transplantation of healthy organs into individuals whose own organs have failed improves and saves thousands of lives every year. Yet demand for organs has outstripped supply, creating an underground market for illicitly obtained organs. The long wait-list and grim results of waiting too long drive a lot of people to participate in transplant tourism and organ trafficking. Organ trafficking is the practice of stealing or buying organs through exploitation to be sold on a black market for profit, and transplant tourism is traveling to another country to buy, sell, or receiving organs.

Desperate situations of both recipients and donors create an avenue ready for exploitation by international organ trafficking syndicates. Traffickers exploit the desperation of donors to improve the economic situation of themselves and their families, and they exploit the desperation of recipients who may have few other options to improve or prolong their lives. Like other victims of trafficking in persons, those who fall prey to traffickers for organ removal may be vulnerable by virtue of abject poverty, for instance. One factor that is distinct in this form of trafficking in persons is the profile of culprits; while some may live solely from criminal trafficking activities, others may be doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, and health care professionals who are involved in legitimate activities when they are not participating in trafficking in persons for organ removal.

Research indicates that illegal organ trade is on the rise, with a recent report by Global Financial Integrity estimating that the illegal organ trade generates profits between $900 million and $1.9 billion per year, with a span over many countries. Organ trafficking, a lucrative global illicit trade, is often a lesser discussed form of human trafficking among anti-human trafficking stakeholders due to its intricate and often stealth nature. Trafficking sex and/or labor are the more commonly thought of forms of human trafficking among public policy leaders and general awareness campaigns. However, organ trafficking holds a critical place with transnational organized crime groups due to high demand and relatively low rates of law enforcement.

As stated in the Palermo Protocol of 2000, the basis for most national laws on human trafficking, organ trafficking is defined within the broader definition as: “Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

Organ traffickers profit in the shadows, while their destructive medical footprint is the only thing that is felt. It leaves vulnerable populations, “donors,” and first world beneficiaries, “recipients,” open to severe exploitation and a lifetime of health consequences. This form of illicit trade also leaves the private sector, in particular the financial industry, susceptible to being an unknowing conduit and channel for its facilitation. Although, with the right training and raised awareness, financial institutions may play a pivotal role in unmasking organ traders by way of the financial trail they leave behind.

Organ trafficking is possibly one of the most covert forms of human trafficking. A global shortage of organs has driven the industry, relying on poor populations to be donors and wealthy foreigners to be recipients. Over 154,000 people are on the organ wait-list in the United States, and a new person is added every 10 minutes (American Transplant Foundation, 2019). On average, 20 people die every day waiting for an available organ in the United States alone (American Transplant Foundation, 2018). It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been victims or recipients of illegally harvested organs because of the complex nature of organ trafficking, like human trafficking in general, which leads to unreliable statistics and underreporting.

There is no reliable data on organ trafficking, but the World Health Organization (2020) believed it to be steadily on the increase, with brokers charging wealthy recipients $900,000+ and giving impoverished donors as little as $1,000, both amounts in U.S. dollars. It is also estimated that 40% of the organ transplants done globally are completed using black market organs (Negri, 2018; United Nations, 2020). Cultural and religious customs ban or discourage some individuals from donating organs willingly or receiving post-mortem organ donations. Illegal organ harvesting generally is not harvesting organs from willing donors going against cultural laws for the sake of philanthropy, but harvesting from unwilling or uninformed donors through the exploitation of impoverished, indebted, homeless, uneducated, and refugee people.

It is pathetic that in search of greener pastures, our brothers and sisters are becoming preys to the illicit and ungodly act. The actors would invite the victims for mouthwatering jobs promising them befitting accommodations, adequate livelihood, and mind-pleasing salaries. In fact, they would arrange the flight ticket, pay for the papers, and promise heaven on Earth just to kill their victims, recover their expenses through selling their body parts. Sadly, many people have been offered jobs abroad but their respective family members could not locate their whereabouts.

Organ trafficking victims, as with most human trafficking victims, are generally poor, vulnerable populations and mostly from developing nations. There are rare instances where victims are put under anesthetic and wake to find their organs missing or are murdered for their organs. As a whole, the coercion of living donors is more common. It is most common for preys of organ trafficking to be recruited through brokers, who are individuals who recruit organ suppliers and connect them with organ recipients.

Recruiters/brokers are usually people who may be from the same communities or ethnicity of a vulnerable population so as to build trusting relationships easier. The recruiters then make promises to the organ suppliers like large sums of money or release from debt and convince them that the organ is not needed. Specifically in the case of kidneys, the most commonly harvested organ from living donors, recruiters will tell victims that the kidney will grow back, having two kidneys is unnatural, or that they have a large and a small kidney and removal of the small kidney is harmless. Victims rarely receive the full amount of money promised if they receive any compensation at all. In most cases, the post-removal healthcare expenses for a living organ trafficking victim add to their previous debt and worsen their financial situation.

(To be continued)

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