Children at risk of having their organs harvested flee to UK to escape criminal gangs

Gabriella Swerling
Lungs, kidneys, livers, hearts and corneas are among the most sought-after organs - PA

Children at risk of having their organs harvested are fleeing to the UK to escape criminal gangs, The Telegraph can reveal.

Lungs, kidneys, livers, hearts and corneas are among the most sought-after organs and are sold on the black market around the world for thousands-of-pounds. Victims are often political prisoners or vulnerable, poor people.

Almost 20 children and adults have been reported to UK authorities in recent years. Last year saw a record number of suspected victims claiming that they had been subjected to one of the most gruesome and harrowing forms of human trafficking and modern slavery.

The disturbing revelation comes as an Independent Tribunal is expected to publish its much-anticipated judgement into forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China today.

Analysis of National Crime Agency (NCA) data reveals that in 2018, four children and two adults were among those who were flagged to authorities, having claimed that they were under threat of being killed for their organs.

The six referals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) - a scheme designed to support victims of human trafficking and modern slavery - mark the highest since records began.

Between 2012 and 2018, the total number of suspected child and adult victims was 18 and were flagged to the NCA by police, local authorities or charities. However experts warn that this is “just the tup of the iceberg”, with the true number likely to be far higher as although modern slavery is  a “hidden” crime, organ harvesting is particularly traumatic. Its victims likely to be vulnerable, poor and unable to speak out.

Last year one male adult, one female adult and four young boys ended up in the UK claiming that they were victims of organ harvesting. They hailed from an array of countries including Albania, Vietnam, Iran and Ethiopia. One Polish man ended up in south Yorkshire.

Two of the victims claimed that the location of their suspected exploitation was in the UK. However the NCA confirmed that no cases of organ harvesting occurred in any of the six cases, raising suspicions that for those who claimed that they were exploited in Britain, a deal could have been made by local gangsters to transport the victims elsewhere to harvest their organs.

The NRA is run by the NCA, which publishes data on suspected victims of slavery and trafficking who end up in the UK. It also records the type of exploitation that people of all nationalities claim to have suffered, such as sexual exploitation, forced labour and domestic servitude.

The first case of an individual being trafficked to Britain in order to have their organs harvested was reported in 2012. It is unclear whether the plot was uncovered before the organ removal from the unnamed adult woman took place, but The Salvation Army, which reported the case, said it was the first such case they had seen in Britain.

Mike Emberson, former CEO of the anti-trafficking charity, The Medaille Trust, and an independent expert on modern slavery and human trafficking, said that while it is difficult to extrapolate much detail from such low numbers, cases may be on the increase, or authorities may be better at spotting signs.

However he added: “What I do suggest, and suggest strongly, is that these figures are very, very low and it is likely given the scale of the organ trade around the world (of which China is a significant but not sole actor), the recent reports of the scale of OCG [organised crime group] activity in the UK and the various diasporas in the UK who may constitute a significant tranche of the customer base, that we are in the cliched area of 'the tip of the iceberg'.

“It is time for more proactive operations by the NCA and other law enforcement agencies rather than reactive operations instigated after victims are discovered.”

Today an Independent Tribunal, spearheaded by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, is expected to publish a damning judgement into forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China.

Sir Geoffrey worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia  and led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic. He has compiled a panel of six fellow experts with a variety of backgrounds in international law, medicine, business, international relations and Chinese history.

For decades, China has been accused of forced organ harvesting but has always denied the claims. The country insists that it adheres to international medical standards which require organ donations to be given by consent.

The Tribunal held public hearings in December with 30 fact witnesses, experts and investigators presenting their evidence before the Tribunal in London.

In an interim report, the Tribunal claimed that forced organ harvesting was happening in the country “beyond reasonable doubt” and that the practice has involved “a very substantial number of victims”.

It added: "The Tribunal's members are all certain - unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt - that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims."

China was asked to participate in the Tribunal, but has declined to do so.

An NCA spokeswoman said: “There have been a small number of referrals to the NCA relating to individuals fearing or being threatened with organ harvesting. Traffickers may use the threat of organ harvesting to coerce or control victims, but to date, we have seen no confirmed cases of organ harvesting in the UK.

“The barriers for anyone wishing to harvest organs are substantial. Human traffickers would need corrupt surgeons, medical equipment, operating theatres - which is almost certainly too costly to be a viable criminal enterprise.

“Modern slavery remains a high priority for law enforcement, with over 1400 live operations in the UK.”