Buried alive (Organ Harvesting): Albinos pay the price for their skin

Despite majority of African countries illegalizing harvesting of body organs, the continent continues to be an epicenter of human trafficking for organ harvesting purposes. A 2021 report by Interpol showed North and West Africa to be the leading source market for the illegal trade due to impoverished communities and displaced populations being at greater risk of exploitation.

The report shows the human trafficking syndicates involved in organ trafficking in these regions have connections to the medical sector in countries from Africa and beyond, notably in Asia and the Middle East, with probable links on transplant tourism, where a patient travels abroad to buy an organ for illegal transplant or transplants performed in North Africa with organs illegally sourced in the region, or transplants done elsewhere with illegally sourced organs.

In 2021, Marriet Achieng from Kipsongo slums in Kitale town, Kenya, who scored 404 marks at Chetoto Primary School shocked many when she opted to sell one of her kidneys to finance her secondary school education. The 15-year-old girl said her mother was a hairdresser who could not afford to raise school fees to enable her join St Mary’s Girls High School, Bomet.

Asked how she could sell her organ, the girl said she was ready to look for a buyer and that she was willing to go through the surgical procedure to see her kidney removed. “I’m not worried about the procedure of removing it. My interest is to see that I get my secondary education school fees,” she added.

Achieng’s story is not unique in Kenya considering the number of people who have come out to “sell” their kidney to raise money during difficult times.

Organized criminal groups coerce the unemployed, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees into selling an organ with promises of job opportunities abroad, as well as use of threats and violence.

Just recently (early July 2022), a Nigerian senator and his wife were arrested in London and charged with trafficking a 15-year-old boy for the purpose of harvesting organs for their sick daughter. Senator Ike Ekweremadu, and his wife, Beatrice Nwanneka was accused of conspiring to transport a child to the United Kingdom (UK) for a kidney harvesting, with prosecutors claiming the child was coerced into donating one of his kidneys to the politician’s daughter.

The Albino story

It is however the facts/story around the people living with albinism in Africa that totally blows the imagination of human rights and dignity. Albinos face some of the most serious dangers in some parts of Africa, where experts say they are at risk of being trafficked for use in witchcraft rituals.

According to a recent report released by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), people with albinism in Tanzania have a price on their heads - whether dead or alive, adults or children. The country is a source for all the trafficking routes in East and Southern Africa, where markets for their body parts prosper.

Those with the condition are socially alienated and stigmatized. Although crimes against people with albinism are under-reported, the high values attached to the illicit trade make this form of human trafficking one of the most lucrative and harmful.

Tanzania hosts the largest population of people with albinism worldwide

Albinism is a genetic condition where skin lacks the melanin pigment, making a person appear unusually light. While one out of 15 000 people in most African sub-regions has albinism, one out of 1.400 Tanzanians has the condition.

According to the April report, a complete set of albino organs in Tanzania is priced at about US$75 0000 by criminal networks serving wealthy clients. Children are said to be worth more.  A living albino costs US$340 000, according to Vicky Ntetema, an undercover investigative journalist. These values make the illicit trade in albinos one of the most lucrative and harmful forms of human trafficking worldwide.

Albinos in Tanzania live in constant fear of being maimed or even killed for the color of their skin. Brutal attacks on albinos are common-place, as black-market prices for their limbs, bones and organs can often be as high as thousands of dollars. The 'magic' is thought to be stronger if the body parts are taken while the victims, especially children, are conscious and alive. Albinos are targeted in four ways by criminal networks that include witch doctors, kidnappers, traffickers and killers: they can be kidnapped, trafficked from another village or country, killed and dismembered for body parts, or their graves may be exhumed and their organs removed.

The clients who buy these ‘products’ are wealthy, influential, and are from different parts of East and Southern Africa, including Tanzania and its immediate neighbors. It appears that most are politicians seeking re-election and business magnates who believe that potions made from albino body parts will make their enterprises thrive, according to ISS.

When a wealthy client dies, albinos are sourced to serve him in his afterlife. In the most bizarre practice of this superstition, a dead client is buried with four live albinos – two on either side of the deceased body, which is laid on their laps.

Most attacks against people with albinism occur in the rural areas of Tanzania, especially in the Victoria, Tanganyika, Nyasa and other smaller lake regions. The towns of Kagera, Geita, Chato, Shinyanga, Singida and Mwanza are hotspots.

Unlike in urban centers, it is hard to detect when a person with albinism is killed in villages in rural areas. Communities believe that albinos ‘disappear’ and do not die, says Wazambi, and so do not report their missing relatives to the authorities.

There are three active albino trafficking routes in the East and Southern African regions, says Ntetema: Tanzania-Malawi-Burundi-Kenya; Tanzania-Mozambique-South Africa; and Tanzania-Swaziland-South Africa. Tanzania features in all these routes as a source country, but albinos are targeted in all these countries by the criminal networks who control the trade. The networks act independently but also work together to exchange organs and charms.

Trafficking and killing of people with albinism occur where government services are often absent or ineffective

During his presidential election campaign in 2015, the late John Magufuli vowed to end the killing of albinos and pledged that government officers would be held personally responsible if any took place.

Despite Magufuli’s stance, killings continued, some are reported and many more are unreported. In 2021, four killings of albinos were reported by the human rights organisations Under the Same Sun and the Legal and Human Rights Centre. A boy of six was discovered mutilated in Kigoma city in May, while a woman was killed in Tabora municipality. And two graves exhumed in October in Tanga and Arusha cities revealed bodies that had been desecrated and were missing their left legs.

In other African countries, albino killings have reportedly increased with the COVID-19 pandemic as more people have fallen into poverty and turned to the organ trade to make money. International advocacy campaigns by human rights organizations and the United Nations aim to raise awareness about the threats faced by albinos worldwide. These campaigns focus on influencing and instituting effective policy and protective frameworks at national levels.

But it is difficult to institute interventions for what can be described as a ‘silent crime’. Albino trafficking and killing occur in places where government services are often absent or ineffective. There is also less advocacy at these local levels due to traditions, customs and superstitions, leaving robust criminal networks to operate unfettered.

Political stances such as Magufuli’s are to be encouraged. Yet these remain political rhetoric if not accompanied by local-level advocacy. This advocacy, which may be spearheaded by the media and civil society, would need to focus on shifting the perspectives on albinism. This shift would decrease the stigmatization and create counter-narratives that break down beliefs that enable the silent, deadly trade in people with albinism. Such campaigns are insufficient on their own, however – local-level leaders who vocally support these initiatives are needed to change mindsets, along with district and national-level support through law enforcement and policy frameworks.

The National Anti-Trafficking in Persons Plan of Action 2021-2024 launched in March is a commitment in the right direction. However, an additional and urgent focus is specific legislation on organ trafficking that will support its 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act in Tanzania. And Tanzania is not alone, countries across the East and Southern African are necessary partners in the detection and prosecution of crimes in their own countries and in the cross-border trade in people with albinism.

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