Organ Trafficking Part 1: An International Market Worth Billions
By Valerie Dirksen
Some would argue that one of the most incredible medical achievements of the past century has been organ transplantation. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved since the first successful kidney transplant took place at Brigham Hospital in Boston on December 23, 1954. Since then, a market for an illegal organ trade has flourished to the disadvantage of the poor in countries like Haiti.
The World Health Organization (WHO), defines 'illegal organ trade' as when a person’s organs are removed from the body for the purpose of commercial transactions, and studies estimate that anywhere from 5% to 42% of all transplanted organs fall in that category. The profits to be made in such trafficking are that of organ brokers, tied to international organized crime, who take the risk of being caught in light of the financial payoff. Global Financial Integrity, a Washington, D.C. based think-tank, estimates that the illegal organ trade generates annual profits of between $600 million and $1.2 billion. This business is in competition with sex trafficking, the annual profits of which are estimated to be $1.5 billion.
Globally, each year, some 125,000 people undergo organ transplantation, a number quite low compared to the demand. As of March 2019, there were 113,000 candidates waiting for organ transplants in the United States alone. This demand has created an underground market for organs removed from both deceased and living donors. Harvesting of human organs is supposed to be done in accordance with the highest ethical and professional standards. Organs that have been successfully transplanted include the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas, intestine, thymus and cornea. Worldwide, kidneys are the most transplanted organs, followed by the liver and the heart.
Many don’t realize that there is a distinct connection between organ transplant sale and human trafficking. Human trafficking is defined as the trade of human beings for the purpose of forced labor, sexual slavery or for commercial sexual exploitation by the traffickers and others. This might include providing a spouse for a forced marriage or the extraction of organs or tissues that will be exchanged for cash. This might include surrogacy and ovary removal. Human trafficking occurs nationally and internationally. It’s a crime that violates the victim’s rights of movement, as coercion is used, leading to commercial exploitation. It’s mostly women and children who are victimized in this way, and at times it doesn’t involve moving the person from one place to another.
In an interview with CNN after the 2010 earthquake, Jean-Max Bellerive, Prime Minister of Haiti at the time, said, “Illegal child trafficking is one of the biggest problems Haiti has.” At least 30,000 children live in orphanages in Haiti, a high number, considering that the population is estimated at 11 million. The Haitian government estimates that approximately 80% of these children aren’t really orphans, because for some, at least one parent is living. Some parents may abandon their children, hoping that they will be better off in an orphanage where they will be fed, cared for and sent to school. Sadly, often this is not the case. Many of the orphanages are profiting off the backs of the children. In some cases, Haitian families have been paid $75 to give their children away, only to regret it once the money has been spent.
Lumas, the Great Britain-based NGO which had done some investigation of orphanages in Haiti, has stated that most of the money donated to the orphanages never reaches the children. They lack such basics as food, water, medical and dental care, as well as education. Reportedly, Lumas witnessed cases of child sexual exploitation and human trafficking inside some Haitian orphanages. Donors and volunteers should be made aware of this problem.
Dr. Wilcox Toyo, the psychologist at the “Haitian Centre Communautaire Morne Ogé,” states:“If you are giving money to orphanages, if you are volunteering in orphanages, you are aiding the human trafficking industry in Haiti.” He goes on to add: “People need to understand that if you set up an orphanage in order to make money out of children as a business, that is a form of trafficking, and it’s not going to stop until someone is prosecuted for doing this.”
Donors, mostly from the U.S., mainly from faith-based organizations, give an estimated $70 million per year, to one-third of the 750 orphanages in Haiti. Based on information provided by the State’s Child Protective Services on orphanages, most are not licensed or inspected on a regular basis. That State agency asserts that there is a severe lack of funds and other resources to do a good job in that sphere. Yet, Senator Marco Rubio’s office in Florida, states that the U.S. Congress appropriated $24 million last year for the Haitian government to combat this very problem. Without a proper audit, no one knows what has happened to this money.
The welfare of the children is not a priority for the Haitian National Police (HNP). Meanwhile, in 2015, with great fanfare, the Haitian government created a National Committee on Human Trafficking (NCHT), but has not committed any resources to allow the committee to function. NCHT has neither an office nor employees, just a catchy name. There’s no fanning out in the community of its personnel to listen and have first-hand information about what’s happening.
Fighting human trafficking is clearly not a priority for a government besieged by all sorts of problems, including extreme poverty. The World Bank reports that one quarter of Haitians live on less than $1.23 per day, and the Haitian authorities display no sense of urgency to address this problem. Their hesitation has resulted in an increase of the trafficking problem. Is that what Haitian authorities want the world to think of their country as they pander the phrase, “Haiti chérie is open for business?”
Haiti is not alone as far as human trafficking in concerned. Senator Rubio’s office also reported that $30 million had been allocated to fight the problem in the Dominican Republic, where trafficking is seen, with extreme cases of sex tourism on the beaches. Haitian refugee children have even ended up in unlicensed orphanages in the country next door, where they have been trafficked. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was known as a country where all forms of trafficking originated. Moreover, consistently, the country has been recognized as the lowest level, Tier 3 by the U. S. State Dept. for its lack of compliance with international norms to prevent and stop trafficking.
Haiti has also joined the commerce of organ trafficking. For those wondering how this happened, the answer given by street-wise people is that "it’s happening under our noses." The Mirebalais Hospital, in the Plateau Central region, far from the capital of Port-au-Prince and bordering the Dominican Republic, may be one of the hospitals involved in the business. Hospital Sacré Coeur at Milot, in Haiti’s northern department, is considered a second potential location where organ removal/trafficking/transplantations may occur. Only under 12 miles from Cap-Haitian, Haiti’s second largest city, that hospital is conveniently located near the Caracol Industrial Park, the new Fort Liberté Prison as well as of the port and airport of Cap-Haitian. Apparently, U.S.-based Mayo Clinic has connections to those two hospitals as well as to an NGO called CRUDEM Foundation (Center for the Rural Development of Milot) which has managed the hospital since 1993.
Cardiovascular teams make regular visits from the US to Haiti. Since the 2010 earthquake, Sacré Coeur has experienced tremendous growth. It went from 73 beds to 420 beds within only two weeks of the earthquake.
Now, the hospital provides care for the entire surrounding area with a population of about 225,000 people. To harvest the organs, the proper medical protocol must be followed. Also, the hospitals should be equipped with up-to-date resources for the task, involving not only the procedure of removal, but also transportation of the organ to one of the largest markets in the world, North America. Thus, the constant demand for organs becomes a lucrative proposition for the organ trafficker who gets big bucks for providing the life-saving organs.
Recently, on a conference call with a Haitian senator, I was made aware of something that is currently under investigation. The senator, who asked for anonymity, explained that three weeks prior a priest had been discovered burying 50 children’s bodies in a cemetery near Cite Soleil. Upon further inspection, the bodies appeared to have had their organs removed. The priest was asked where he got the corpses, to which he responded that he had been asked by the hospital to take care of the remains. He had chosen that place for a proper burial, since roadblocks by demonstrators calling for the resignation of President Moïse made it impossible to reach Ti Tanyen, the potter’s field north of Port-au-Prince.
In March 2018, I went to the Dominican Republic to meet with officials about my work advocating for children. During the meeting, they asked for my help in investigating organ trafficking. They said there had been reports of Haitian refugee children being found with missing organs and corneas. What a terrible fate for these children to face.
What’s not right in the USA, cannot be right around the world, especially in poverty-stricken countries. Have we lost touch with our humanity? There’s no need for another meeting, a conference or a forum to discuss and analyze the problem. We need people to stand up and put the common good for all ahead of personal gain. “L’Union fait la force” is a Haitian motto that led to the independence of Haiti. Indeed, in “Unity There’s Strength!” And, in three powerful words--“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”-- the Haitian Constitution affirms the essence of our bonding together for the wellbeing of all.
Valerie Dirksen, President, International Children’s Rights Advocate’s Society www.icras8.com