Organ Harvesting: what is it?


Organ harvesting is something that we don’t really talk about much in Northern Ireland. Mainly because, thankfully, there have been very few cases uncovered in the UK – but does this mean it isn’t happening, or does it mean it’s just being well hidden?

Either way, it’s best to be informed about the issue so that we know how we can help our own and other countries to get away from the reality of forced organ harvesting. 

Laura Scott investigates.

What is it?

Organ harvesting is when people are trafficked for the use of their internal organs. The organs will be used for transplants – and for profit. The trade is currently dominated by kidney transplants, as these are the most in demand organ today – you can find out more info on why this is below.

In more recent years the number of legitimate organs available for transplant has fallen worldwide, while the number of people waiting for transplants has increased – this leaves a huge issue that needs to be acknowledged, and unfortunately at the moment it seems to be traffickers who are the ones doing that.

How does it happen?

Traffickers sometimes traffik people into organ harvesting by kidnapping victims and forcing them to give up organs. Other criminals get involved by ‘duping’ people into believing they need an operation and removing the organ during this operation, without their knowledge or consent. Others actually choose to sell their own organs out of financial desperation, but see just a fraction of the profit – if any.

Who is involved?

Forced organ harvesting requires quite a large team of people. There will be a recruiter who identifies the victim, a transportation advisor who will arrange the transport of the victim and of the organ, medical professionals who perform the operation, and lastly a salesman who trades the organ.

Who is most at risk?

People of all ages can become targets for organ harvesting, but homeless people and migrants have been known as the most common targets. Children, and those who cannot read are also quite susceptible to it, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, or those who have disabilities.  

“One in ten organ transplants involves a trafficked human organ, which amounts to around 10,000 each year.”

World Health Organisation

Where is it happening?

Research shows that the most popular places where involuntary donors are being used include South America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. These organs are then being transported to western countries for use, with the most popular places being the USA, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom and Japan.

“Patients might pay anything from $200,000 for a kidney to $1m for a heart.”

Global Financial Integrity

Why is it happening?

Each year fewer than 1 in 10 people waiting for a donor organ will receive one. Advances in medicine, which keep us alive longer, are one of the causes of a growing need for forced organ harvesting. With rising levels of Type-2 Diabetes, Chronic Kidney Disease and Heart Disease, the need is growing quickly, while the availability is decreasing.  With successful safety advances – like the changes making it compulsory to wear a seat belt, fewer organs from young, healthy people are available. Prolonged end-of-life medical care is also a cause, as it means fewer usable organs are available upon death.

“Illegal organ trade generates between $600m and $1.2bn in profits a year.”

Global Financial Integrity

Does it happen in the UK?

There haven’t been many uncovered cases in the UK. The first case came to light in 2011, with the victim having being found before the removal of organs could take place. Just two years later, in October 2013, a female child was recovered. She had been brought to the UK from Somalia. The intent was to remove her organs and sell them for profit, to those who were desperately in need of a transplant. Again, the child was found before this could happen.

It’s great news that the police were able to find the victims before they had been operated on, but the terror that they went through, being kidnapped and taken from their own countries and brought here knowing that this was going to happen to them leaves them terrified.

ECPAT UK – a non-profit organisation campaigning against child trafficking and transnational child exploitation – explained that while only one victim was found on both of those instances, it’s likely that a whole group had been brought to the UK.

“Traffickers are exploiting the demands for organs and the vulnerability of children. It’s unlikely that a trafficker is going to take the risk and bring just one child into the UK.” – Bharti Patel (Chief Executive of ECPAT UK)

More recently, in March of this year, 12 year old boy and 30 year old woman were recovered, being suspected as victims of forced organ harvesting. They had been sent to England, from Asia, to have organs sold on the black market. Again, police intervened before the traffickers could carry out the plan further.

What can we do?

Research shows that kidneys are one of the most in-demand organs, with 7,000 being illegally obtained around the world by traffickers per year. So what can we do to stop this?

Cutting the demand for organ transplants by taking care of our health.

Taking care of our bodies through exercise, healthy eating and medication regulation is a way to cut the global demand for organs. With relation to kidneys: avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco, sugar and pain killers will keep ours healthy.

Signing up to be organ donors.

Less than 60% of us are signed up to donate our organs. You can do this here:

Spot the signs.

If you are a medical professional, look out for people who obtain organs in other countries; or people whose organs have been removed without their consent.

Watch more here: