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Wearing a baseball hat and smoking a shisha pipe in a cafe in Cairo, Dawitt tells me he is 19, but looks years younger. He explains that he escaped Eritrea aged 13 to avoid forced, indefinite conscription into military service.

His family helped him pay smugglers to travel via Sudan to Egypt. Struggling with debt and desperate to make the sea crossing to Europe, he looked in vain for regular work. Then he met a Sudanese man who suggested a “safe and easy way” to raise the cash – selling a kidney.

“I thought it would be a good way of getting money fast and travelling to Europe,” says Dawitt. “I was worried, but he convinced me that it is a very easy operation and you can live a normal life with one kidney. It was a lot of money. How [could] I say no to $5,000 when I have nothing and my family need help?”

Dawitt was given blood and urine tests, then taken for surgery.

“We drove all night to get to the hospital. I remember walking downstairs and waiting to speak with the doctor. Then I entered a room where I was asked to change my clothes and lie down on the bed. All I remember after that was waking up and feeling a sharp pain in my side. I started shouting and cursing until the broker came to take me back to the apartment.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests organ brokers are increasingly approaching migrants with the offer of a passage to Europe in exchange for donating an organ.

Dawitt’s story is more common than statistics suggest. According to a 2018 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has collected data on 700 incidents of organ trafficking, primarily from north Africa and the Middle East. Yet these figures are conservative, at best. The true scale of the industry is difficult to assess, as the majority of cases go unreported, with victims reluctant to come forward for fear of deportation, arrest or shame.


Read more: The Guardian