A recently tweeted news alert, purported to have emanated from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), has stirred international debate over the nature and extent of trading in human organs in the Middle East. Organ trafficking has been generally described as the recruitment and receipt of organs from donors using force, threats, fraud and deception. It involves abuse of power over the vulnerable.
The tweet, titled ‘Organ Trading: UN Alert’, alleged that a kidney is currently selling at US$262,000 and a heart for US$199,000 while a liver costs US$157,000. These unsubstantiated figures perhaps accounted for the tweet going viral over the last few weeks, though current concerns over organ trading have been on the international agenda since 2020. Though these figures may be high, there is no denying the fact that organ trading is a lucrative business for the brokers.
The statement quoted the UNODC as warning countries to be wary of foreign agencies promising to offer lucrative job opportunities in the Middle East. “They process their papers, pay the plane tickets and take them abroad pretending they want to find them a job; but instead they kill their victims and recover all the precious parts of their bodies,” the statement alleged.
But through its website UNODC has been quick in denying the authenticity of the tweeted news. UNODC explained that a global report in 2020 shows that North Africa and the Middle East have the highest detection-share of victims trafficked for the purpose of organ removal. During the reporting period, females comprised most of the victims trafficked for sexual exploitation; and two-thirds of the victims were trafficked for forced labour. Additionally, most of the men were trafficked for organ removal.
The information on their website indicates that the UNODC took several steps to fact-check the tweet. First, they checked a link shared by this alert, and the results showed the alert to be fake news. However, quite characteristic of fake news, the alert mimicked an archived link from the UNODC – perhaps to give it a semblance of credibility.
Further, a Twitter advanced search on all tweets shared by UNODC with the keywords ‘Organ Trafficking’ and any tweets including ‘human or trafficking or Middle East’ showed that their latest tweet was shared on March 12, 2021. It came on the heels of the Fourteenth United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice held in Kyoto, Japan. Curiously, one of the crimes discussed at the congress was organ trafficking; but the forum did not make the claims contained in the tweet.
UNODC noted that the difference between the fake tweet and its 2020 report is that: whereas the fake tweet gives an alert of a black market for organ trafficking in the Middle East with the accompanying prices, the UNODC 2020 report acknowledged that “there could be a desperate situation where human traffickers exploit ‘organ donors’ solely for selfish gains”.
UNODC says this alert was previously flagged by a number of credible fact-check organisations as fake news. One was published by Pesa Check on March 18, 2021. Additionally, in an email to the Ghana Fact, UNODC’s Chief of Advocacy disputed claims that this document originated from the UNODC. Based on the various steps taken to check the alert’s authenticity, UNODC denies issuing the alert about a booming black market for human organs in the Middle East. UNODC concludes that the story was produced by an organisation called ‘Africa Uncensored’ in partnership with Code for Africa, with support from Deutsche Welle Akademie.
The reality of human trafficking
Though the UNODC has sufficiently disassociated itself from the alert, the possibility of human traffickers using their victims as organ donors cannot be easily dismissed, in as much as the UNODC’s 2020 report acknowledges the possibility of human traffickers exploiting organ donors for financial gain. No matter where one stands on the development, it deserves urgent global attention. On the heels of this latest twist, on July 29, 2021, UN Secretary General António Guterres urged UN member-states to act against human trafficking, wherein a third of all victims are children.
An increasing sovereign wealth driven by billions from oil revenue in the Middle East has allowed the people there to live opulent lifestyles – to the point of destroying their livers, kidneys and hearts. The only way out is to purchase an organ or two at any cost, even if it means promising people jobs in a bid to lure them for organ harvesting.
Through this strategy many people, especially from poor and deprived countries like Ghana, have been offered jobs in the Middle East over the last five years, where they are being subjected to inhuman treatment, or at worst killed.
Several families in Ghana have complained about losing contact with their relatives after they were lured to the Middle East. In fact, the violations of African immigrants’ human rights in the Middle East, in particular, is continuing on the blindside of the rest of the world.
Organ trafficking is a lucrative illicit global trade, and often a less-discussed form of human trafficking among anti-human trafficking stakeholders due to its complex nature. Trafficking for sex and/or labour purposes are the common forms of human trafficking among public policy leaders and general awareness campaigns. However, organ trafficking is central to transnational organised crime groups due to high demand and poor law enforcement. While organ traffickers profit in the shadows, they leave vulnerable populations, aka ‘donors’, with lifetime health consequences.
Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates that 10 percent of all organ transplants including lungs, heart and liverare done via trafficked organs. However, the most prominent organs that are traded illicitly are kidneys, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimating that 10,000 kidneys are traded annually on the black market worldwide. Once obtained, trafficked organs can be transported to recipients in the most reputable of hospitals in major cities throughout the world. The use of makeshift operating rooms for such transplants is common in some countries.
Financial exploitation plays a key part in both sides of this scenario. As indicated earlier, organ traffickers can also be involved in other forms of human trafficking, such as sex and/or labour trafficking. Cases are emerging wherein an organ ‘donor’ may have been a victim of sex trafficking and/or labour trafficking as well as a victim of organ trafficking – creating a multi-level equation of exploitation. The term ‘transplant tourism’ is often used to describe this crime, as defined by the Declaration of Istanbul:
“Travel for transplantation that involves organ trafficking and/or transplant commercialism or if the resources (organs, professionals and transplant centres) devoted to providing transplants to patients from outside a country undermine the country’s ability to provide transplant services for its own population.” It is difficult to ascertain how much transplant tourism generates annually worldwide, but it is estimated that the illegal organ trade conservatively generates approximately US$840million to US$1.7billion annually, according to GFI, with traffickers as the major beneficiaries.
There are three ethical positions which can be advanced to support the practice of trading in human organs. The first is the libertarian view; the second is the utilitarian view; and the third is the consequentialist view. The libertarian view argues that an individual owns his/her body and has the right to sell his or her body. This view stresses the autonomy of an individual to make decisions about his/her body. The utilitarian view also argues that a body-part is a commodity like any other that can deliver benefits for the individual. The consequentialist view, on the other hand, addresses the outcome of trading in organs – and argues that selling organs is acceptable if it leads to a good outcome that saves people’s lives.
Such a portrayal of the market as being free and indifferent to what is traded is a powerful and controversial argument. It is assumed that both the buyer and the seller gains, and hence the trade has utility and positive consequences for both buyer and seller, as well as society. The question however is, how free or fair is the market? Have the sellers freely chosen to sell their kidneys or they are being exploited for their kidneys? To what extent has consent been freely given, and to what extent is organ-selling the result of extreme poverty? Further, to what extent is global inequality driving the illegal trade in organs?
Economic and development analysts have identified two additional ethical implications from organ-selling. First, is the amount the seller receives for an organ commensurate with the risk, viewed against possible health implications? Second, does treating kidneys as commodities degrade us as human beings? Literally, should kidneys be sold like any common commodity?
The legal perspective
As indicated earlier, organ trafficking has attracted a great deal of international attention lately. The World Health Assembly was first to express concern about trafficking in organs, and highlighted the need for global standards to regulate it. Other bodies like the United Nations and the Council of Europe in a publication advocated an international treaty to ban the trafficking of human organs, tissue and cells. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that the human organ trade is a human rights violation. However, the need for human organs is so great that people are prepared to break laws and travel abroad to buy organs for transplant.
Despite these treaties, some states are unfortunately encouraging the trade in human organs while others genuinely lack the resources or the will to make and/or enforce their domestic laws. These two positions have deepened the controversy over this issue. For instance, while the trade is legal and regulated in Iran it is banned in India – but loosely enforced.
To be honest, I have no idea where Ghana stands on the issue of organ trading – though it may be a lucrative trade going on secretly. The recent arrest of a 28-year old man in the Bono Region of Ghana for killing three people and storing their parts in a freezer could be a timely warning for law enforcement agencies. I am worried by the rate at which people, mostly children, are getting lost in the country. Last Thursday, September 9, 2021, Oman FM announced four young people between the ages of 12 and 18 as missing. They went out and never returned…and their parents are worried they may have been killed, perhaps for organ harvesting.
In sum, judging from the manner in which the trade is taking root locally and internationally, it is unlikely any regulation would be universally respected. Perhaps a more contextualised set of rules and principles for different countries and individuals could be the way forward.
Christina Bain, Director of the initiative on human trafficking and modern slavery, Babson College, Wellesley, MA, USA.
Joseph Mari, CAMS, senior manager of major investigations, Bank of Montreal, Toronto, Canada.