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This 2007 image from Nepal's Cavre Valley, where it is said that in every family one person sold an organ for money.
This 2007 image from Nepal's Cavre Valley, where it is said that in every family one person sold an organ for money.
Marco Accossato

TURIN — There are journeys even more awful than the perilous crossings in rickety boats made by would-be immigrants trying to reach European shores. In these trips instead – made to Pakistan, Iran, Egypt or certain Eastern European countries – people sell a part of themselves: a journey of transplants, to places where the human organ market is legal.

And indeed among those same desperate refugees who arrive on the coasts of Sicily and Lampedusa, there is a growing risk of crossing paths with an organ broker on the black market. Alarm for this practice is now widespread.

These brokers lurk either before or after the crossing — on the lookout for people willing to do anything to reach a better life. They latter are offered money in exchange for a kidney, or part of their liver. Between the urban legends, the true stories and the unimaginable, in times of desperation authorities consider every possibility.

In 2009 the then Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni spoke during the release of a UNICEF humanitarian report, saying that 400 children were missing from Lampedusa. This shocking news was never confirmed, but it has been noted that, in addition to the countries where it is legal to buy and sell organs, Pakistan, Mozamique and Moldova were also now crossroads on the black market for organs.

How much of this is just urban myth? In the past, note renal expert Giuseppe Segoloni and Mauro Salizzoni, head of the transplant center in Turin, they'd hear about "boys found on park benches, half dazed, with fresh scars along their sides. Today we hear about refugees who left and never arrived who were probably killed and just used as ‘organ machines.’”

Doctors say stories like these are not realistic, but that the truth is not so far off. “Wherever there is despair, there are organ traffickers.” And if these shady figures aren’t on the boats themselves, there are people who threaten kidnapping or offer deals to those who can’t pay.

In transit or online

“Extracting any organ,” explains Professor Salizzoni, “is a complex surgical process that you can’t do in a makeshift operating theater in a basement.” Any organ, after checking compatibility, must be harvested while the donor is alive with a pulse, excluding the theory of killing people for clandestine organ trafficking.

“In the clinics where known transplants take place legally, and where the buying and selling is not a known obstacle, the interventions are made in a professional manner," he explains. "Nobody would compromise their business with the trafficking of abducted men, women, or children’s dead bodies.”

Naturally, the organ trafficking business lives on the Internet — though this is most probably not the way those who have dissappeared came into contact with the brokers. For them, contact took place in transit.

Online instead, everything can be planned out from your sofa: The price is made by those who are selling, and just like cell phone offers, if you sign up your friend there’s a 20% discount.

For those who don’t use the black market websites, the price is decided by the brokers, a price which you can take or leave because there will always be someone more desperate than you ready to take the same price. A kidney bought in Yemen can go for $5,000 — to be resold for $60,000; In China they pay $15,000 and sell for $47,000 to $50,000; In Israel it's bought for $10,000 and sold for $135,000.

In Italy it is illegal to buy or sell organs, but bids from across the borders come through. The organ brokers aren’t just looking for desperate people. In the northern region of Piedmont alone, five cases of illegal organ trafficking are known to doctors. Among those is a well-off, 70-year-old entrepreneur who paid to go to Pakistan for a freshly harvested kidney, instead of facing continuous dialysis.

“He never told us, and we never asked how much it cost,” said one doctor at Turin’s Città del Salute hospital. Turns out the patient died a few days later from other causes, before ever leaving for his foreign transplant.

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