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Organ trafficking targets Ukrainians in financial plight in cases involving Tokyo NPO

The Yomiuri Shimbun
>A court is seen in Kyiv on Sept. 22, where the Turkish coordinator prosecuted by Ukrainian authorities did not attend the organ trafficking trial held there.

Ukrainians having financial difficulties have been identified as organ donors in several cases of suspected trafficking of living kidney transplants carried out overseas through the mediation of a Tokyo-based non-profit organization. Even when there is an agreement between donors and recipients or a third party, such transplants are criticized internationally as inhumane.

Emphasizing ‘quality’

“The COVID-19 crisis has made our daily lives worse. Anyone who wants to sell a kidney should contact us.”

On one of the websites written in Ukrainian, such posts about organ trafficking have increased since the COVID-19 disaster broke out in 2020. In 2021, there were about 280 such posts, nearly four times as many as in 2019.

The site lists the age and blood type, and the organ they wish to buy or sell and at what price. There are even posts that emphasize the “quality” of the organs on offer, such as, “Perfectly healthy 20-year-old!” Contact information such as phone numbers and email addresses are also listed.

Many organ buyers claim to be medical professionals outside of Ukraine. For example, a person who calls himself “George,” a nephrologist, has offered to broker sales on the same site on about 40 occasions since June last year.

The posts continued unabated even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. On Sept. 7, a person claiming to be a neurologist posted, “If you are suffering from economic hardship, I will buy your kidney.” He stated that he had “bases in Japan” as well as in the United States and India. The Yomiuri Shimbun put questions to this person by email but received no reply.

‘You can buy a house’

A man who traveled to Bulgaria in April last year to receive a kidney transplant under the guidance of the NPO — the Intractable Disease Patient Support Association — said in an interview that his donor was a Ukrainian woman. The donor for a Japanese woman, 58, who received a kidney transplant in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan in December last year was also a Ukrainian woman, who received nearly $15,000 (about ¥2 million) in return for donating her kidney.

The coordinator who arranged these two transplants, a 58-year-old Turkish man, was arrested by Ukrainian authorities in 2017 on suspicion of his involvement in organ trafficking. According to court documents, the donors in these cases were also Ukrainians. They were solicited on social media with the promise of receiving about $15,000 for a kidney, and taken to Turkey and other countries to have the kidneys removed.

Behind such developments is the low income level in Ukraine. According to the Finance Ministry of Ukraine, the average annual income of Ukrainians in 2021 was about ¥650,000, less than one-sixth that of Japanese people.

A source familiar with the local situation said: “In many cases, people living in poor rural areas become donors. It is even said that ‘if you sell a kidney, you can buy a house.’”

Transplants within own country

Courtesy of Oksana Ovсhynnykova
Oksana Ovсhynnykova is on dialysis and awaiting a kidney transplant in Ukraine.

The Declaration of Istanbul, adopted by the Transplantation Society in 2008, advocates that “transplant tourism,” in which a person receives an organ in exchange for money outside his or her own country, such as in developing countries, “violates the principles of equity, justice and respect for human dignity” and should be prohibited.

Such practices are not only inhumane. Transplantation across judicial borders deprives organ transplant recipients of the opportunity to receive a transplant in their own country.

Oksana Ovсhynnykova, a 29-year-old lawyer living in Odesa, southern Ukraine, was diagnosed with kidney failure at the end of 2020 and was placed on the health ministry’s transplant waiting list. She has been on dialysis for nearly two years while waiting for a transplant, but her turn has not yet come.

“The shortage of organs is a global issue, and Japan should solve the problem on its own so as not to reduce transplant opportunities for patients in other countries,” she said.