Decades of war in Iraq resulted in an almost collapse of state institutions. Competition for power, coupled with weak government performances, rampant corruption and growing unemployment led to serious dysfunctionalities within Iraqi institutions and security forces. This situation facilitated the expansion of international organized crime, including the trafficking of human organs, a phenomenon more and more apparent throughout the years.

Ali Al-Husseini, a father of 5, was walking in Al-Maghrib Street, Baghdad, concerned about the fate of his daughter who suffers from kidney failure. He had just left the Al-Khayal Hospital that specializes in kidney problems. His daughter needed a donor to heal and overcome constant torments and pain stemming from her daily dialysis. Three people approached him, apparently aware of his daughter’s story, and claimed they could secure a suitable kidney donor for her.

Mr. Al-Husseini told the Red Line that he was happy with the news and did not bother to inquire about the credentials or identity of these strangers. He immediately agreed and the transplant operation was carried out for his daughter in a hospital in Erbil in the Kurdistan region for 30 million Iraqi dinars (25 thousand dollars).

Al-Huseini did not know that he was dealing with human traffickers, linked to an organised network that extends all across the country with networks in the central and southern governorates. “The most important thing for [me] was to rid my daughter of her difficult illness.” he explained.

A Shady business

At this stage, the methods of work of these criminal networks remain shady. The Red Line’s attempts to communicate with security services remained unsuccessful. However,A source within the Iraqi National Security Department (INSD) who requested anonymity  explained that criminals have specialised structures to carry out their activities: “there are criminals who attract donors, and others that monitor specialised hospitals for potential buyers, in addition they have insider networks that confirm the needs by such or such patient for a specific organ.”

Organ trafficking and smuggling intensified in Iraq after 2003 in an unprecedented way, according to a report commissionned by the NATO organization. Our anonymous source explained that human traffickers either focus on selling human organs inside the country, or smuggling them to neighbouring ones. The same source also commented on Mr. Al-Husseini’s story: “The people that Mr. Al-Husseini met are part of a criminal organization operating on Al-Maghrib Street due to the presence of Al-Khayal Hospital that specializes in kidney diseases and where many patients go because they need an organ transplant.”

The source also told the Red Line that these gangs position some of their members near the hospital to monitor the attendants: “They identify potential targets for a period of time, and once they are sure that these patients require an urgent organ transplant, they establish contact with him/her. Under the emergency, he or she is forced to accept their proposal.”

Earlier in January, the ministry of Interior announced the arrest of three persons accused of trafficking human organs in Wasit Governorate, south eastern Iraq. According to the governmental statement, the suspects admitted having carried out 17 human organs operations in Wasit Governorate in addition to being part of a similar criminal network in Baghdad’s governorate. The tempting sums of money emanating from such a trade even prompted two members of the gang to “sell their kidneys,” as the statement said.

According to Mahmoud A., (the nickname of the director of a former Human Rights center in Baghdad), the situation is getting worse: “With huge demands of human organs, these gangs even began selling dead people’s organs. They also reached prisoners to trade their organs such as the kidneys, and testicles.” Ultimately, due to Mahmoud’s Human Rights center’s efforts to document these crimes, he received threats which forced him to permanently close his center. “I feared for my life and my families’.” he said.

In 2019, the Iraqi media “Ultra Iraq” produced a report based on the survey of no less than sixty social media pages and groups specialized in buying and selling human organs. According to the report, the traffickers give their donors all details regarding surgery or the costs of traveling to different governorates in order to perform surgical operation. Kuwait, Turkey and Iran are the main destination for organs smuggled out of Iraq, the report says.

One his side, the Iraqi Observatory for Victims of Human Trafficking, (a non-governmental organization), has documented the existence of 27 human trafficking networks in the country between February and July 2019. According to the Baghdad-based NGO’s statement issued on July 28, 2019, “Most of the human organ trafficking networks use the Kurdistan region as a safe haven in order to practice their crimes by luring victims there and stealing their organs.” 

The dysfunctionality in communication both by federal and Kurdish authorities have limited their capability to counter organized crime. In this regard, a source within the federal ministry of Health and who requested anonymity explained to the Red Line that his ministry has had a difficult time communicating with his peers in the Kurdish provinces, especially when it came to conducting inspection audits and holding investigations on particular matters. The source recalled a quixotic situation where the federal ministry of health wrote to the autonomous Kurdish ministry of Health only to be replied: “Write to us with Kurdish instead of Arabic.”

Victims get swindled

Salim is the nickname of an underaged organ trade victim who once agreed to donate parts of his body for money. He described to The Red Line how his misfortune unfolded: “I was tempted by a financial offer: more than 50 000 US dollars for one kidney. After the dealer and I agreed on the sale I was invited to Baghdad, in a specialised centre for human organs transplants at al-Khayal hospital. The dealer had already made all the preparations.”, he recalls.

In Salim’s case, the broker faked the consent of his parents as well as his legal age. To this end, he used fake IDs and fabricated consent letters from his parents. The Red Line obtained a document considered a model for parents consent to donate the victims kidneys. 

Salim recalls that he was never paid after the operation. Because of the illegal basis of the operation, he was unable to file a complaint against the dealers. Salim could not complain against the traffickers because the law prevents any payment in exchange of organ donations. On top of this, Salim’s age (below 18) and falsified documents would cause him prosecution for having engaged in such an operation.

According to the Iraqi Observatory for Victims of Human Trafficking, the dealers’ networks have headquarters in Sulaymaniyah, where they lure their victims (usually homeless and extremely poor people) with money in exchange of one of their body parts. After the operation the victims often find themselves suffering from physical complications, while their reward is often not delivered. Doctor Faleh (a nickname of a doctor from al-Khayal hospital) shared his experience on this practice with The Red Line: “There are many people who sell their kidneys due to extreme poverty. Some of the sold kidneys are smuggled out of the country through private health centres located in the Kurdistan region.”, the doctor explained.

Earlier in 2018, the Iraqi federal court warned that hospitals in the Kurdish provinces engage in transplantation and removal of human organs in a manner that contradicts the frameworks of the federal laws. Yet, the autonomous region’s authorities remain reluctant to collaborate with Baghdad to counter this phenomenon.

Human rights activist in Kurdistan Jihad Hawiz gave insight on the issue of the Kurdish region’s specificities: “In Iraqi Kurdistan, private clinics commit crimes in complete secrecy.” adding, that “[t]here are official documents explaining that some people who were smuggled abroad through the Kurdistan region, as part of (illegal immigration), have already been subjected to removing their organs.” Victims of imigration human trafficking could be easily taken advantage of due to their vulnerability in front of the smugglers who found an easy profit by smuggling their victims in parts rather than as a whole. According to our source from the ministry of Health, private clinics do most of the job by removing the organs and getting rid of the dead bodies behind closed doors. 

Poor government monitoring

The Red Line obtained an official statistical document from a source in the ministry of interior showing the number of human rights violations in 2020. This record includes only one case of organ trafficking, while another document recording crimes in 2018 shows a figure of 4. These numbers indicate a great weakness in government follow-up and monitoring of organ traffickers across the country. They reflect how the ongoing organ trade operations remain unabated.

Iraqi Human Rights Commission member Ali Al-Bayati, told the Red Line that the human organ trade has increased in the recent period due to the deterioration of the economic and security situation in the country, adding that organ trafficking was a source of funding for ISIS terrorists. Security affairs expert Abbas Al-Ardawi, also attributed the expansion of human organs trafficking to the growth of ISIS over large areas in Iraq, claiming that the terrorist organization encouraged such activities to finance its military operations. Regarding the organisation of human trafficking, Al-Bayati explained: “Local crime networks are definitely linked to larger networks also dealing with drugs and weapons.” 

Describing the latest statistics published by the Iraqi branch of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR), Mr. Al-Bayati says that the year 2019 witnessed the arrest of 506 suspects related to organ trafficking, of whom 160 were sentenced. Mr. al Bayati also pointed out that these figures do not represent the real numbers, due to the weak government monitoring of this phenomenon. They also point out to the government’s incapacity to keep track of criminality rates, seen that the records previously mentioned barely mention any of the figures documented by the UN in Iraq.

In 2012, the Iraqi government enacted the Anti-Human Trafficking Law, which was expanded to include human organs trafficking. “The Anti-Trafficking Law, consists of 14 articles. They provide penalties of up to life sentence, and fines of up to 25 million dinars (20 thousand dollars), explained expert Ali al-Tamimi.

In the same context, Al-Bayati stressed that the legislation related to human trafficking still needs to be amended, and the law must take into account the social and economic conditions that push victims in the hands of the organised criminals. In addition to this, there are no specialized courts handling these types of crimes. On a humanitarian aspect, the UN employee pointed out that the country needs shelter homes for homeless people and awareness programs targeting the community in order to increase protection within society against such crimes. 

On the application of Human trafficking laws, Badr Al-Zayadi, a member of the Security and Defense Committee in the parliament, told the Red Line: If the government provided for a decent livelihood, the poor would not be involved in selling their organs.”

 1- The Iraqi National Security Department is an internal intelligence department that was formed after 2003 to strengthen security forces in their fight against crime.

VIAMustafa al-Masudi

Amer al-Sheibani