Reporter: Ziad Omar & Ahmed Abdullah
Syrian refugees face the dangerous world of black market organ trafficking expanding from Syria into Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey.
Doctors exploit legislative loopholes established in 2011, designed to combat human trafficking. Law no. 3/2010 states that donors cannot be incriminated or punished. The vast network stretches from hospital officials, security officials, ex-convicts to pimps.
The process starts with hospitals and clinics across the Syrian regions and organs are advertised on the internet as such:
“For sale: Kidney of a 27-year old male who needs the money to travel to Europe. Free of any viruses or genetic diseases. Currently residing in Turkey. For inquiries: send a private message.”
Investigations into a mediator for an organized network revealed that the quality of organs was guaranteed as “fresh goods” supplied “every day.” The process for purchase begins once the blood type of donor and recipient is confirmed. Organs can be voluntarily or involuntarily donated and then transported to Europe.
The escalation of war has claimed the lives of countless victims such as Ahmed Abdul Karim. According to locals, human rights reports and the media, organs have been stolen during medical treatments since 2013. Ahmed is buried among others who suffered a fate similar to his own in Morek, his hometown.
On July 6, 2015, the head of Syria’s Doctors’ Syndicate, Abdul Qader Hassan, announced the dismissal of five doctors found guilty of organ trafficking. Details can be found in document no. 4/3/2011, issued by the Central Disciplinary Council.
Confession from one of the doctors, his secretary, and his driver revealed Dr. Samir H. to be guilty and “the Syndicate had permanently banned the doctors from practicing medicine, referring them to the judiciary authorities. Investigations revealed a transnational network transporting pregnant women to give birth in Lebanon in order to harvest the infants’ organs for payment.”
Between 2013 and 2015, a network of 12 members was arrested. The operation stretched from Damascus to Aleppo and was one of the most active in the region. The organization is made up of first time and repeating offenders, guilty of fraud, kidnapping, and debauchery,
According to official reports, Ziad W. and Mohammed Ammar K. are two of several members to be found guilty. The latter is also wanted for attempted kidnapping. On July 2013, Abdul Qader Hassan announced that both members have been stripped of their pension, health insurance, a guarantee of protection guarantee and medical license. However, as they no longer live within the jurisdiction of the regime-controlled Aleppo, criminal charges cannot be taken.
Others to be found guilty include Ahmed Sh., Naji F., Mohammed Ghazi S., Ahmed H., Nisreen F., Ahmed H. H., Ibrahim H., Khaled, A. Fadia D. and Omar H. (including pimping).
The head of General Authority for Forensic Medicine, Dr. Hussain Nofal, estimates the number of trafficking cases to exceed 18,00 whilst Sayyed believes it to exceed 20,000. However, the attorney general of Damascus, Ahmed al-Sayyed, revealed that the Syrian court had only processed approximately 20 cases in the past four years.
Based on a study conducted in war zones, Dr. Nofal revealed that in 2013, out of the 62,000 receiving treatment in neighboring countries, the organs of 15,600 people were harvested.
Children are no exception. Yasmin Shahada, age 9, went missing after doctors tried to harvest her kidney. On Aug. 4, 2013, her father was informed of Yasmin’s death. 17 days after he requested an official death certificate (no. 1367), a Turkish doctor revealed that Yasmin was still alive. She was found in Latakia’s northern countryside with three bullets removed during the outbreak in 2013. The doctor made a deal to smuggle her back to Syria.
A six-month investigation in Syria, Istanbul, and Beirut revealed 12 cases of organ trafficking, including seven cases of voluntary donation, three cases of involuntary harvesting during medical treatments, one case of survival from a harvesting attempt, and one case of fraud.
On July 7, 2015 11:00 am, Thura Ahmed, 16, was scheduled for a corneal transplant (Keratoplasty) in her left eye at a Damascus hospital. The doctor informed her family that the new cornea would be imported from the US for $1,500 with a certificate detailing the donor’s medical information, such as the date of harvest and genetic or microbial diseases.
The cornea arrived two days after Thura’s family agreed to proceed with the operation.
The surgery took place 20 minutes, after the family had been informed. However, her condition kept deteriorating.
After the head of the state-owned eye bank, Dr. Mohamed Raslan reviewed the case, Article 1/B of the legislative decree no. 61/2010 revealed that ophthalmologists can only import corneas in exceptional cases for limited periods of time and for the public interest.
Neither the doctor’s identity nor the request for Thura’s corneal surgery was found on record.
Thura’s family is in the process of submitting a complaint to the Doctors’ Syndicate.
29-year-old Mohamed Zaher (alias) is one of 132,000 exploited Syrian refugees in Egypt. An interview with Zaher revealed his regret. He sold his kidney for $3,000 in order to move to Istanbul. Zaher has not informed his wife or family. Doctors have warned him that he will die if the remaining kidney fails.
Zaher said, “this is the biggest crime I have ever committed in my life, and I will never forgive myself.”
Assistant of the Egyptian Health Minister, Saber Ghonaim said that if the hospital was proven to have allowed Zaher’s surgery, the entire medical team can be suspended and prosecuted.
He advises Zaher to file an official complaint, however, this can be difficult as he not currently in Egpyt. Zaher has refrained from taking legal action for now.
Zaher’s is only one of the thousands. Many resort to voluntary donation so they can move to Europe in hopes of a better life. The number of online advertisements reflects the scale of this phenomenon. However, what started as a phenomenon has now become the norm.
The Facebook page is known as “kidneys for sale”, and it receives at least two to three advertisements per day.
Facebook was questioned regarding the legality and responsibility of such pages. However, as these pages meet Facebook’s standards, as they do not incite violence or post inappropriate pictures, no action was taken.
A UNRWA report in March 2015, revealed that Syrian poverty levels had reached 82.5 percent in 2014, compared to 64.8 percent in 2013. According to the report, “conflict-related transnational networks and criminal gangs emerged to engage in human trafficking,” following this rise.
An investigation was conducted on a closed Facebook group for Syrians in Lebanon, asking for kidneys. The first offer came from Syrian citizen, Ali A. The dialogue took place as follows:
Reporters: $2,000 for one kidney.
Ali: For a poor person, this is a fortune. All I want is to cover my children’s expenses, at least for a couple of months.
The second offer came from Mohamed (alias), a 29-year-old Syrian living in a refugee camp in Rashaya, Lebanon. He is a father of three, including two disabled children requiring medical care.
Reporters: How much would you sell one of your kidneys for?
Mohamed: I do not know much about this. If the price is good, I will go ahead with it. I need to go to Europe to treat my kids.
Reporters: How about $4,000?
Mohamed: Yes, I would leave Lebanon and travel immediately to Europe.
The third seller seemed more experienced, as he mentioned the blood type (B+) in the advert. During the dialogue he asked for the desired blood type, indicating he had access to several kidneys. The following is the dialogue that took place:
Reporters: Do you still want to sell the kidney?
Seller: What blood type are you looking for?
Reporters: You said B+ in the advert.
Seller: How much?
Reporters: I do not know. How about $2,000?
Seller: *laughs* I want $10,000.
International organizations remain oblivious to this phenomenon. More than four international organizations either responded with, “we do not have any information on the phenomenon” or refused to comment.
On Sept. 7, 2015, Human Rights Watch responded with the following: “Unfortunately we have not looked into this matter. You can write to Amnesty international or look into the following journalistic material”.
The above-mentioned material is in reference to an article published in an edition of Der Spiegel on Oct. 12, 2013. It revealed 19-year old Raed to have sold his left kidney for $7000 after he fled from the battles in Aleppo to Lebanon. The surgery took place in a residential complex through a Lebanon-based network. The organs are acquired through mediator Abu Hussein. He receives a $700 commission for the procurement and delivery of organs to GCC countries.
Inquiries sent to Amnesty International on Sept. 3, 2015, and again on Sept. 8, 2015, were unresponsive. Doctors Without Borders (MSF), sent on Sept. 6, 2015, were also unresponsive.
The World Health Organization responded on Oct. 29, 2015, after inquiries were made about its role in monitoring the trafficking of the Syrian people’s organs and how it planned to limit these activities across borders. It stated: “We do not look into the issue of organ trafficking. This is the responsibility of Interpol. We only examine how countries can prepare organ donation programs and its systems, which may discourage or eradicate the illegal trafficking of organs.”
Head of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Dr. Morhaf al-Mualim’s inquiries to numerous international organizations since early 2012 have all been unresponded.
Head of Syrian Lawyers Union, Mr. Nizar Skief’s two inquiries to the Arab Lawyers Union have also been unresponded. The first inquiry alerted them to crimes in Syria and the second inquiry shed light on the smugglers arranging illegal migrations to Europe.
In 2009, Syria signed the “United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols.” It stipulates the responsibility of the state to combat such crimes and pursue the perpetrators of transnational crimes regardless of the political circumstances.
While Syrian law aligns with UN conventions on toughening the punishment against human trafficking, it’s reservations concerning article 35 of the convention pertaining to transfer of these case to the International Court of Justice has hindered its efforts to execute necessary legal actions.
In 2010, Legislative Decree no. 3 was issued to combat human trafficking. It increased the punishment in cases involving women, children or if it crossed international borders.
In all the aforementioned cases, article 8 of civic degradation is applied. It stipulates that “whenever there is a reason to increase the punishment, the sentence is increased from the third to the half”. As such, a sentence of 15 years would become 20-22 years.
The head of the Syrian Lawyers’ Union said: “It is true that the law is a deterrent yet the crime continues.”
He added that the “chaos ensuing from the Syrian crisis strengthened organized crime syndicates. The phenomenon is likely to expand even further and affect neighbouring countries unless there is an international effort to monitor these crimes and combat them”.
The head of the Doctors’ Union agrees and emphasized that the only way out is through international cooperation to monitor and capture these networks.
In a report released by the United Nations entitled “Squandering Humanity,” it highlights survivors from Syria selling their organs to make ends meet.