The New Go-To Place for Illegal Organs

Jan 20, 2014 at 8:37 AM ET

On a recent night in south Beirut, a group of young men sat exchanging bits of neighborhood gossip in a tiny café. Slumped into a corner, and wearing a ball cap pulled down low, one of them slowly nodded along in obvious physical pain. Like a growing number of Syrian refugees here desperate for cash, he had just sold one of his kidneys on the black market.

“I was in need of money,” says Mohammed, a scrawny 21-year-old now living in Lebanon. “I had to leave Deir Ezzour [in eastern Syria] a year and a half ago because the war got so bad.”

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While no reliable numbers exist, Lebanon’s piece of the global illicit organ trade—which the World Health Organization estimates to be 10,000 transplants per year—is relatively small. But the combination of Lebanon’s close proximity to buyers in the oil-rich Gulf states, the country’s lax law enforcement and a massive wave of desperate Syrians could turn it into the go-to country in the region for buying illegal human organs.

Like many Syrian refugees, Mohammed struggled to find work in Lebanon. The influx of more than 800,000 refugees to a country of fewer than 5 million has flooded the labor market. However, a suggestion from Mohammed’s cousin last fall would change his fortunes.

“When I first arrived in Lebanon I sold vegetables on the street, but the money was not enough to survive,” Mohammed says, short of breath and wincing with nearly every word. “If I was lucky, I would make $70 a week. Then my cousin told me that he sold his kidney for $5,000, so I asked him to introduce me to these people.”

The man he was introduced to goes by the nickname Abu Jamil—a burly, middle-aged Lebanese hustler who seems to have his hand in just about every illicit activity in south Beirut. He is a loan shark who also sells cocaine, hashish and, more recently, human kidneys.

“When Mohammed came to me last month, I told him, ‘I’ll give you $5,000 for one of your kidneys.’ I get $7,000 from the buyer for each one and keep $2,000 for myself,” he says. He fits the profile of what the U.N. calls a “kidney hunter.”

Abu Jamil’s business all comes in by word of mouth, mostly from satisfied customers, he claims. He reiterates several times that he’ll only deal with willing clients, and that all of the kidneys he has sold came from healthy young men, like Mohammed. Word has slowly trickled through the Syrian refugee community in Beirut, enough for Abu Jamil to personally broker the sale of “more than 30, maybe 35” kidneys to buyers mostly from wealthy Gulf Arab countries.

“My part of this business is finding sellers,” he says. “Arranging the buyers is up to the big guys.” Abu Jamil claims to not know exactly who the ringleaders of his human organ trafficking operation are. All initial transactions are conducted through a network of middlemen like himself. He describes the local kidney business as “steady.”

“There are a lot of powerful, well-connected men involved in this business,” he adds. “It’s similar to the drug trade. We use very similar networks.” But unlike the drug networks that send millions of amphetamine pills to the Gulf each year from Lebanon, the organ buyers usually travel here for the operation, according to Abu Jamil. It’s much easier for someone to fly a few hours and have an operation than it is to smuggle a kidney overseas.

Once Mohammed decided to sell his kidney, the process moved quickly. He was blindfolded and driven by two of Abu Jamil’s men to a small, makeshift clinic somewhere in Lebanon. “The doctors treated me very well,” he says. “When I arrived for the surgery, they asked me, ‘Are you feeling well? Are these men forcing you to do this?’ I told them that this was my decision and then the surgery went ahead.”

The clinics are all staffed by “certified and well-respected doctors,” Abu Jamil says, adding that they are Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian professionals who also work full-time jobs in hospitals across Lebanon. Several Lebanese health professionals contacted declined to comment on the illicit organ trade here.

According to a 2009 World Health Organization report, poverty is the motivating factor for people around the world who sell their kidneys. The report adds that “lasting economic benefit after donation is limited or even negative because of the limited employability of such patients and the perceived deterioration of their health.”

And while the number of kidneys sold here by Abu Jamil are not huge, he knows of several competing operations in the country that provide the same services to international and Lebanese clients. He estimates that no more than 200 Syrian refugees have sold their kidneys in Lebanon over the three years since the uprising-turned-civil war started forcing them to flee. But business has picked up in recent months.

Though his operation was nearly two weeks ago, Mohammed walks carefully and frequently stops to catch his breath. He spends most of his days sitting around with friends, waiting for the pain to subside. “Sometimes I regret selling my kidney, but I had no choice. Now my life is better,” he says. “I put all of the money into a bank account and when I return to Syria someday I plan to open a small business.” For now, he’s spending some of that money to support his mother and siblings, who have also fled the war to Lebanon.

A Syrian friend of Mohammed’s used most of the money he got from selling a kidney last year to open a small mobile phone shop in a neighborhood nearby, and to rent an apartment for his family. When Abu Jamil first met him, the young man had just arrived from Syria and was sleeping under a bridge near the Beirut airport.

The Syrian conflict has been good to men like Abu Jamil, and he sees nothing wrong with that. “Without me, perhaps these poor people would starve. As long as I make a profit, and the Syrians are making money, too, what’s wrong with it?” he asks. “We’re all happy with this arrangement.”