Today kidneys are sold in Beirut for 1 million Lebanese Pounds; that's around $670, a very tempting sum for desperate Syrian refugees. Three years down the line of the conflict in their own country, Syrians in neighbouring Lebanon are exploited in many ways; they are especially vulnerable to the illegal trade in human organs, which is going through a boom period.
The socio-economic nature of the country, with some extremely rich people and a huge number of people living in poverty, makes today's Lebanon "ideal" for organ trafficking, claims Luc Noel, a transplant expert at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Another specialist, Professor Susanne Lundin, explained to MEMO how the trade follows a clear, geographically-linked pattern; people in poor countries sell organs and people from rich countries buy them. "Where there is war, poverty, misery and corruption," she said, "it happens more and more often that people are trying to get out of their trouble by selling organs, mostly kidneys."
Recent articles in Der Spiegel and Politiken.dk have referred to the same gang whose representative Abu Hussein, aka "Big Man", prides himself on his work "taking care of the Syrians". For every kidney sold, he earns around £420, more or less what a teacher earns in a month. "There are more and more people getting ripped off or robbed of their kidneys or other body parts," Prof. Lundin alleged. "These distressed people and their body parts are high-value merchandise on the black market."
Naturally, this trade is illegal but as with many other "inconsequential" regulations, the authorities can afford to turn a blind eye. It has been reported that organ sales take place in the shadiest and most unfavourable corners of Beirut, such as the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs. The business used to be sustained by donations from destitute Palestinians. There is no exact information on the size of this business, but the WHO estimates that there is at least 10,000 kidneys sold worldwide, a large proportion of which originate in Lebanon; around 10 per cent of organ transplants around the world are such commercial transactions.
Generally, those who are desperately sick choose to ignore the fact that poor people are being exploited to provide the organs which might save them. Furthermore, says Prof. Lundin, the sick buyers are themselves cheated into paying large sums of money for poor or infected organs. "Those who win in the business are the organ brokers and corrupt doctors."
The black market depends on young people and children s young as 14-years-old who donate an organ in order to support their family in the merciless world of the refugees, particularly when winter takes its toll. Mattresses, blankets and warm clothes are essential and for people with hardly any chance of getting a roof over their head, organ trafficking is a desperate but ultimately temporary remedy.
A recent organ donor, 21-year-old Ahmed, told the Danish newspaper Politiken that he regretted nothing. Three days after his left kidney was removed, the wound was obviously still very painful. He earned the equivalent of £4,400, a fortune in a country where a construction worker earns about £60 per month. "It means everything to us," Ahmed said. With the influx of refugees, rent in Lebanon has increased at an extortionate rate, making it impossible for many refugees to reside in official camps or to rent rooms, or even live in abandoned garages and sheds. Ahmed spent the money on rent for a room for himself, his mother and two younger siblings.
"Big Man" usually sends out agents in the poor areas of Beirut to "offer them a mutually beneficial deal" before driving the children to the secret clinic disguised as a residential building. Der Spiegel published a similar story about Raïd, who used to play in the Syrian national youth soccer team and who was told by the doctor who examined him that, "with a little luck, the kidney will grow back" and that there wouldn't be any after-effects. In reality though, a series of check-ups must be made in the years following the operation, but people like Raïd can't afford this essential after-care.
In most cases the procedure is quick, in order to get as many through the doors as possible; this haste manifests itself in medical complications later. Life after this kind of surgery is often worsened because the donor may be incapable of working. This is particularly the case for young people and children who are tricked into selling the corneas of both eyes, resulting in blindness.
Tens of thousands of rich Arabs travel to Beirut for treatment in Lebanese hospitals. With so much plastic surgery and Botox treatments on offer, the authorities don't notice, and don't want to notice, whether the patient is flying home with a new pair of lips or with a new kidney.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.