Iraq emerging as hub for illicit trade in body organs

Poverty across Iraq caused by years of war, compounded by corruption and economic crises, has led to the rise of a black market in organs that has grown in recent years.

Preying on the poor. The children of an impoverished Iraqi family stand outside their home in the holy city of Najaf.

BAGHDAD – Mohammad made the perilous journey from Baghdad to Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan, because he was desperate for the money he would receive for selling one of his kidneys to support his parents and nine siblings living in abject poverty.

“I had lost hope of finding any job and I wanted capital to start a business to help my family,” said the 20-year-old who asked to be identified only by his first name. “I was promised $6,000 for my kidney but I only got $1,250, part of which I spent on post-operation treatment and the rest to pay back my family’s debts. I’ve got nothing left.”

Poverty across Iraq caused by years of war, compounded by corruption and economic crises, has led to the rise of a black market in organs that has grown in recent years.

Young men such as Mohammad, unemployed and desperate for money, are wooed into selling their organs via networks of shadowy dealers and middlemen in Baghdad and other cities.

Mohammad said he offered his kidney for sale through an online network disguised as a charity. He had to travel to Sulaymaniyah for the surgery, which took place covertly in the shabby ward of a private hospital.

“I was afraid and wanted to cancel the deal but I was threatened and forced into surgery along with a young woman, who must have been the receiver,” he said.

Mohammad said he gets regular messages and calls warning him against revealing what happened to him.

Hundreds of Iraqis are believed to have sold kidneys and other organs through dealers in the past few years. About 23% of Iraqis live in poverty, meaning they survive on $2.20 a day or less, Index Mundi stated.

Unemployment is also high, with at least 18% of young Iraqis out of work, UN and government reports suggest. Unofficial estimates have put the figure as high as 30%.

Although Iraqi law allows people to donate their organs, their sale is illegal. However, Ihsan Salam said he paid $15,000 for a kidney to one of the dealers.

“I went to Erbil for the transplant because it is much easier to do it there than in Baghdad and did not require the special permission of the parents, just the donor’s and his wife,” Salam said.

The illicit trade is largely lucrative for dealers, who generally take two-thirds of the sale with one-third going to the donor. Most people buying organs are other Iraqis but, with news of a market spreading across the region, there have been reports of people travelling from across the Middle East to secure an organ.

Iraq is becoming a hotbed for human trafficking, including organ trade, forced labour, child abuse and sexual exploitation, said Ahmad Hadi of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Trafficking Victims.

“The daily number of human trafficking crimes in Baghdad and other provinces is frightening. Lawlessness and lack of awareness are main causes but in more than 80% of the cases it is caused by poverty and unemployment.”

Impunity and hardly any risk for traffickers to face justice make it hard to quell the illicit trade, Hadi complained. “The government is totally absent, laws criminalising human trafficking are not implemented and some crimes are committed by gangs and brokers linked to security and political parties,” he said.

A report by the UN Office and Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned that “vast areas of impunity” remain globally for people traffickers, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. It cited research saying there is evidence of traffickers colluding “with medical professionals, relying on corrupt and fraudulent practices.”

Perpetrators of this form of trafficking take advantage of “severe levels of vulnerability,” UNODC said. For example, people in refugee camps are recruited “with false promises of receiving payments or transport to safer locations.”

Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation was by far the most common form found in the data compiled by the report, accounting for 59% of victims detected in 2016.

The organised crime department of the Iraqi Interior Ministry has formed a special unit to clamp down on the traders, who frequently dupe people into becoming donors.

Khaled Mohanna of the social police said his unit has been monitoring suspected traders and places where gangs are believed to be operating.

“We could apprehend many traffickers and refer them to court but our unit’s main mission is to raise awareness among vulnerable communities who might fall prey of the criminal networks, notably the poor who are wooed through different ways like paying their debts and then blackmailing them to sell their organs,” Mohanna said.

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