THE HAGUE, Netherlands—European doctors, legal and law enforcement professionals gathered at the headquarters of Europol in The Hague on Nov. 21 to discuss the trafficking of human beings for the purpose of organ removal (THBOR). THBOR refers to when a patient travels to another country and receives an organ obtained through coercion or use of force.
“We conducted a survey of organ transplant professionals in the Netherlands and almost half of doctors have treated patients who went abroad, and in most of these cases they had suspicions that the kidney was purchased illegally in Pakistan, Iran, and China,” said Frederike Ambagtsheer, researcher at Erasmus MC University Hospital in Rotterdm.
“Our conclusion is that Europe also carries the responsibility to stop organ trafficking worldwide,” she said.
Ambagtshee is part of the Human Organ Trafficking for Transplantation project (HOTT), a research project started two years ago and funded by the European Commission.
So far, HOTT researchers’ work has been to review publications on organ trafficking and cases of high profile organ trafficking networks that were investigated and prosecuted by police. They are also interviewing European patients who have traveled abroad for organ transplants, and are working on spreading awareness of the issue.
At least 25 of the 28 EU member states have adopted national laws about human trafficking after the EU passed legislation in 2011 outlining the criteria and the punishments for for human trafficking.
“This is a law against trafficking for all forms of exploitation,” said Myria Vassiliadou, EU anti-trafficking coordinator, clarifying that the directive included trafficking for the purpose of organ removal.
One of the countries identified by the HOTT project as a destination for European patients to get a transplant was China.
China performs 10,000 organ transplants a year, according to China’s former health minister, Huang Jiefu—the second highest in the world behind the U.S.
Unlike the U.S. however, China’s organs are not sourced from willing donors.
China says it uses a combination of prisoners on death row (the exact number is held as a state secret), and organ donations. However mounting evidence that China is mainly using prisoners of conscience, primarily practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual practice that has been persecuted in China since 1999, is becoming more widely known.
The European Parliament passed a resolution on forced organ removal in China in December of 2013.
It states there are “persistent and credible reports of systematic, state-sanctioned organ harvesting from non-consenting prisoners of conscience in the People’s Republic of China, including from large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned for their religious beliefs, as well as from members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.”
Other countries where patients go for organ transplants include Pakistan, India, and Columbia, however nowhere are organs sold for profit on the scale they are in China and with institutional support. In fact, it is illegal under international laws to pay for any organ, a law that aims to protect the poor from being exploited for their organs.
Stopping the Crime
The first step to combating this crime, according to organizers of the symposium, is to raise awareness in Europe.
“And identify the problem, in a multi-disciplinary way, because a lot of doctors aren’t really aware of organ trafficking issues,” said Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen, Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence.
One way to combat illegal transplant tourism is to establish national registries of patients who have had organs transplanted inside an EU country. This would make it easy to identify those who have traveled abroad for an organ, and who may have obtained one illegally.
Doctors can also help by providing information about transplants their patients had in other countries while keeping the patient’s identity anonymous. This would help prosecute the brokers and those who profit from THBOR without implicating the patients.
“They should report the hospital or clinic or the city, the country or the doctor where the patient went to and received the illegal transplant so that police can prosecute the facilitators of the transplantation,” said Ambagtsheer.
As for how law enforcement authorities can help medical professionals, Alex Capron, a healthcare law, policy, and medical ethics professor at the University of Southern California, suggests they should provide legal education on THBOR and what constitutes a crime in the eyes of the law.
“Transplant professionals need to have prosecutors speaking to them at their meetings about the importance of the law and why it exists to avoid the exploitation of people,” said Capron.
The HOTT project will terminate in 2016 but coordinators hope to the put recommendations made at the symposium into practice well before then.