Sex trafficking and labor trafficking are more widely researched and discussed, but another area of trafficking is organ trafficking.

I first heard about  “organ harvesting” in the early 2000s, but that was long before I heard about human trafficking. Honestly, it is such a grotesque, inhuman, heinous crime I couldn’t wrap my head around how human organs could be a cash commodity. Very little research has been done to know how much this crime exists globally, and very little is being done to address the situation. Indeed, this is likely the first time you’ve heard about it.

What is organ trafficking, also referred to as organ harvesting?

It includes various activities and is divided into several categories by some international organizations, such as WHO. Essentially, it is the illegal harvesting of organs, including hair, tissue, and cells, from live or deceased individuals that are sold illegally for transplantation. It’s a crime where the poorest of the poor are exploited to fill the needs of the more advantaged.

While most countries consider organ trafficking human trafficking, the United States and Canada do not.

Because there isn’t a depth of information regarding the criminal activity of organ harvesting, it’s nearly impossible to give it the attention it requires to end it or even know how extensive it is other than see that reports are increasing, as well as the increase in opportunity to exploit.

However, investigations are more widespread. WHO has developed a toolkit for the investigation and prosecution of those suspected involved with organ harvesting.  The approach to ending this crime is changing as more activities and authorities uncover more reports and more is learned about where and how it takes place.  Organ harvesting is also known as the “red market.” A sub-category of the red market is the illegal selling of hair, known as “black gold.” In southern India, as a tribute to the god Vishnu and a sign of humility, women line up to have their hair chopped off and dropped into a vat, where it’s collected, combed, and sold internationally for hair extensions. Men’s hair is sold to chemical companies and reduced to an amino acid called L-cystine.

According to a PBS report (Trafficking Victims Forced to Sell Organs Share Stories 01.17.2023), 35,000 in Nepal are sold into slavery. It is here where there exists a clear example of organ trafficking. Kidneys are taken from women and children, but there is an area in Nepal where most victims are men. Since the pandemic, poverty conditions have increased. So have the efforts of traffickers to coerce the desperate into being transported to India, where their kidney is removed and sold to the international market. This area in Nepal is known as the “Kidney Alley.” Evidence collected points to a specific hospital where these procedures occur, yet, India, to date, has not come forward to condemn the harvesting.

Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Africa are more examples where this crime is underpinned by economic conditions, noting that this crime exists wherever there is disempowerment. Migrants are often victims where, as with other classifications of trafficking, the victim’s identification papers are taken to be sure they don’t report the crime and risk arrest and prosecution for being in a country illegally.

The bottom line that no one wants to address is that this crime wouldn’t exist without a market.

Donor organizations, if they are even aware of organ harvesting, do not fully vet donors. Hospitals and doctors don’t ask questions, and patients in need of organs rarely ask where an organ came from. And those who do know look the other way.

The world needs policy change addressing economic conditions, increased hospital and insurance company accountability, identified and verified donors’ information, and greater awareness of this crime.