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Saturday 17 February 2018

Organ traffickers reap war's bloody harvest

Desperate migrants fleeing war and hunger are falling prey to the grotesque 'Red Market', writes Rachel Lavin

GRUESOME TRADE: Organ traffickers are using the fog of war to cover up and conceal their grim trade — which earns them hundreds of millions every year. Stock Image
GRUESOME TRADE: Organ traffickers are using the fog of war to cover up and conceal their grim trade — which earns them hundreds of millions every year. Stock Image

Rachel Lavin

Officials along the North African coast had become used to the sight of bodies appearing on the shoreline - casualties from the 1.25 million people who have fled across the Mediterranean in rubber dinghies and wooden fishing boats since last year.

Last April, however, the bodies of nine Somalis that washed up on an Egyptian beach revealed an even darker reality.

Officials reportedly found thick jagged scars along the centre of their chests and, on further inspection, learned that organs were missing. It appeared that these nine people, a mother and her two children included, had become victims of the underground organ trafficking trade, also known as the Red Market.

It has been around for decades, ever since the joy of the first successful living kidney transplant in 1954 was quickly offset by the lack of available donors to meet the rising demand.

Even in the US, where an average of 79 people will receive organ transplants each day, 22 will die waiting. Few countries can provide a self-sufficient supply, particularly in less-developed regions, so a grim illicit trade has opened up - the harvesting and sale of organs for cash.

It is now claimed that trafficking in organs for the purpose of transplantation accounts for 10pc of all transplants in the world, producing up to $1.2bn (€1.1bn) in illicit revenue each year.

Wealthy recipients can source organs away from lengthy waiting lists in their home countries or even travel as "transplant tourists" to countries where the practice is common in order to buy an illegally sourced kidney, liver, corneas or more.

While the sale of organs is illegal in most countries, the underground trade tends to flourish most in areas where social and political instability, income inequality and population displacement are high.

In the aftermath of the Kosovo war, for example, EU prosecutors alleged that members of the Kosovo Liberation Army killed a small number of Serb prisoners and harvested their organs.

A 1994 Human Rights Watch Report documented China's systematic practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners.

Isil has authorised the harnessing of organs of "infidels", with Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, calling on the Security Council to investigate mass shallow graves where bodies were found with deep surgical cuts and missing organs.

The organ 'donors' are not always completely involuntary, though.

Pakistan is notorious for having one of the world's biggest "kidney bazaars", supplied by the country's impoverished citizens.

As documented by journalist Scott Carney in his book The Red Market, an Indian camp for survivors of the 2004 tsunami became known as Kidneyville because so many people sold their kidneys to organ 'brokers' for desperately needed funds.

All are fed back into the sophisticated international network that transports and trades the organs for high profits.

In the aftermath of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, countries along the Mediterranean such as Egypt and Libya have become a haven for those willing to give life and limb to escape to Europe, as well as those willing to exploit them.

At the beginning of this summer it was reported that Hussein Nofal, the head of the department of forensic medicine at Damascus University and chief of the newly formed General Authority for Forensic Medicine, estimated that up to 18,000 Syrians have had their organs removed for sale over the past four years of war.

He claimed the trade is particularly active inside Turkey and Lebanon's camps for Syrian refugees, with the price of a kidney varying from $10,000 (€9,000) in Turkey to $3,000 (€2,700) in Lebanon and Syria.

His allegations were further backed up in the trial of a trafficking kingpin in Italy last month, when Nouredin Atta, an Eritrean people-smuggler who became an informant after he was arrested by Italian police in 2014, gave a disturbing testimony.

In it, he revealed the inner workings of the gruesome trade that exploits poor migrants who can't afford to be smuggled across the Mediterranean.

"I was told that the people who can't pay are given to Egyptians who kill them to take their organs and sell them in Egypt for $15,000," he said.

"The Egyptians come equipped to remove the organ and transport it in insulated bags."

While Egypt has long been suspected of being a hotbed for organ trading, with impoverished Egyptian citizens and sub-Saharan refugees the source of the exploitation, reports of killing for the purpose of harvesting organs are relatively new.

Long before the current wave of refugees, Egypt has had a complicated history of organ trade. In her book, Our bodies belong to God, scholar Sherine Hamdy explains that because of division among Muslim scholars on the morality of organ donation, legislators over the past few decades have failed to address it.

Amid the legal vacuum, a sophisticated red market developed.

Legislation outlawing commercial organ trade was finally enacted in 2010, but Hamdy argues that it merely pushes the trade underground and it would be better to keep the long-established practice out in the open.

Despite Egypt's almost accepting attitude toward commercial organ trading, what could explain the reports of increased violence and brutality toward donors such as the nine Somali refugees who were suspected of having been murdered, their organs stolen and their bodies dumped at sea?

It seems an established practice of organ harvesting, an increase in the number of increasingly desperate refugees flooding into the country and the recent outlawing of the conventional methods of organ trading giving rise to increasingly violent and ruthless underground traffick- ers could certainly have created the perfect storm for such a phenomenon to occur.

While Medecins Sans Frontieres Ireland could neither confirm nor deny reports of organ trading, spokesperson Lia Paul said that at the centre of all of this is the continued inhumane exploitation of refugees.

"Men, women and, increasingly, unaccompanied children, some as young as 10, are suffering abuse at the hands of smugglers, armed groups and private individuals who are exploiting the desperation of those fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty," she said.

"The abuses reported include being subjected to violence (including sexual violence), arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, financial exploitation and forced labour."

She said that Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has teams aboard three ships in international waters north of Libya, is doing its best to provide life-saving emergency care to migrants in distress who are escaping land, and abusive gangs, by boat.

However, it is the psychological effects of their experience that may leave the longest-lasting scars.

"As well as experiencing traumatic events in their home countries, according to data collected by MSF, 82pc of the patients directly treated by MSF teams in Sicily reported experiencing traumatic events during their journeys," said Ms Paul.

"In all, 42pc of them were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder."

Sunday Independent

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