On Wednesday, 14 European nations signed the world’s first international treaty to fight human organ trafficking. This exploitative illegal business frequently involves organized crime rings, and generates an estimated $1.2 billion per year in profits. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some 10,000 black market transplants are carried out every year, usually from poor donors in developing countries to wealthy recipients in developed countries.
While there is a black market for hearts, lungs, and livers, kidneys are the most sought-after organs because it is possible for one to be removed from a patient without serious ill-effects if the procedure is done properly and there are no complications. (Note that this is often not the case.) The WHO estimates roughly 7,000 kidneys are illegally harvested by gangs, and each fetches a worldwide average price of $5,000. Buyers are willing to pay far more, and “donors” are often cheated, getting far less or nothing in truly appalling circumstances.
Some are duped into agreeing to sell a kidney after traffickers assure them they will not only receive tens of thousands of dollars for it but that it will grow back. After paying a perhaps paltry amount, the traffickers disappear, leaving their victims to suffer. ‘Traffickers target the most vulnerable – children, those living in poverty, refugees and migrants – because they are often desperate and easy to manipulate,” said Chloe Setter, from child protection charity Ecpat UK. According to News24, in September 2014, an Italian police investigation revealed that a gang of human traffickers accepted migrants’ organs as payment for smuggling them from northern Africa to Europe.
In Kosovo, five men were convicted in 2013 of involvement in an organ-trafficking ring that performed at least 24 illegal kidney transplants, according to the Daily Mail. The clinic’s director had promised victims about $18,000 each for kidneys that were then sold on the black market for as much as $125,000 a piece, but donors often got nothing. And while most illegal organs come from developing countries, there is a deeply disturbing underground trade going on in developed countries as well. Most of it goes unreported, but anecdotal evidence from thwarted attempts indicates that migrants (including minors) are brought to countries like the U.K. specifically for their organs to be harvested.
Under the new treaty, states will share the same legal framework, making it easier for national police forces to share key information and work together to close in on trafficking rings. Hopefully more nations will sign on in the future, but this global problem cannot be tackled just from the wealthy countries’ end alone. Global demand, with at least 200,000 people on waiting lists for kidneys alone, is far higher than what the slow legal transplant process delivers in nearly every country. Many in need do not have access to or the means to pay for dialysis services, an expensive long-term alternative to a kidney transplant. And on the supply-side, even though many poor people are not adequately informed about the whole process and the risks involved, they are desperate enough to try selling their organs.
While efforts by individual countries to pass legislation and crack down on illegal organ trafficking are commendable, there needs to be more close international cooperation in combating this wretched industry. This treaty is a good start, but governments also need to expand and speed up their legal organ donation systems.