Human trafficking victims forced to sell their organs share harrowing stories

Each year, an estimated 35,000 Nepalis are sold into modern slavery. They are vulnerable in part because of their economic conditions, as of the 29 million people who live in Nepal, nearly half live in poverty. But the country is trying to fight back and police recently busted a network that was trafficking people into neighboring India for the illegal sale of their kidneys. Zeba Warsi reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Each year, an estimated 35,000 Nepalis are sold into modern slavery. They're vulnerable in part because of their economic conditions. Of the 29 million people who live in Nepal, nearly half live in poverty.

    But the country is trying to fight back. Police recently busted a network that was trafficking people into neighboring India for the illegal sale of their kidneys.

    Producer Zeba Warsi traveled to Nepal, including a district known as the Kidney Valley, to examine the ramp at human trafficking and meet the men forced to live a sort of half-life, with just one of their two kidneys.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Working as a tea boy was not part of the dream, but 19 year old Santosh is not where he wanted to be, and he's not who he used to be.

    He is always reminded of what stolen from him by his scar. His body has to adapt to just one kidney.

    Santosh, Victim of Organ Trafficking (through translator): They must be punished for this. My body is damaged, I faint. I can't do hard labor. And I find it difficult to stand for too long.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    This is the cost of being poor in Nepal. Millions of workers leave their countryside villages because they have no choice.

  • Santosh (through translator):

    I have four sisters and a mother back home. I am the only breadwinner and have six mouths to feed. I have a very small farm, and we have been making no money.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    In June, men came to his village in Central Nepal with the promises of a new job in India. They took him to New Delhi, the capital in Northwestern India, and said he needed a blood test in Kolkata. There, he was drugged, and doctors removed one of his two kidneys.

    The traffickers gave him $4,500 and sent him packing back to Nepal.

  • Santosh (through translator):

    They asked me to say yes to whatever the doctor asked. I didn't understand Hindi, so I just said yes to anything he asked. And then he did this to me.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Over the last two decades, dozens of men from villages in Nepal have either voluntarily sold their kidneys or were trafficked and duped into it.

    In Santosh's village, we meet Dan Bahadur Malla. He led the investigative team that found Santosh. They busted two trafficking rings and made the largest number of arrests of kidney traffickers in Nepal in a decade.

  • Dan Bahadur Malla, Chief Investigating Officer, Nepal Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau (through translator):

    COVID-19 has played a key role in increasing human and kidney trafficking. People have lost livelihoods and have no jobs. But they need money to survive.

    Traffickers see this as an opportunity to mislead people who are in economically hard situations.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    We drove to those villages in this district in Central Nepal known as Kidney Valley. In some, traffickers and victims live as neighbors and were angry at our presence.

    Driving off-road up the hill is the only way in. This tiny village in East Nepal is nestled on a beautiful hilltop, but it has a tragic reality. It is said that almost every man who lives here has just one kidney. As one mother told me, her son was born an equal, but life had other plans.

    Kaali, Mother of Organ Trafficking Victim (through translator): My older son gave his kidney a few years back. He used to work as a construction worker. Now he struggles with life. He's weaker and gets sick easily.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Sixty-nine-year-old Kaali trudges on with life, burdened by poverty. A few years ago, her oldest son sold his kidney in India for fewer than $500.

  • Kaali (through translator):

    I don't know how he's able to live with just one kidney. It gives me sleepless nights. He can only do light work. He can't lift heavy weights. I worry about him.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    The next victim is close. I walk next door to meet the Bardeva family.

  • Shuddhata, Student (through translator):

    I know that my uncle's kidney was sold when he was young. Whenever he changed clothes, we could see the surgery mark, and grandma said his kidney was sold.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Thirteen-year-old Shuddhata aspires to rewrite her family's poor fate. A few years ago, her uncle sold his kidney for $300. And, only last month, she stopped her own father from selling his kidney. He needed money to start a new business.

  • Shuddhata (through translator):

    I cried and cried, and we all in the family urged him not to do so. He is both our mother and father, because we don't have a mother. And he finally agreed to not sell his kidney.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Her favorite song is about the unconditional love of a mother. She dedicates it to her father, the only parent she's known.

  • Murari Kharel, Nepali National Human Rights Commissioner:

    They have not got enough humanitarian assistance as they need, because it is a kind of heinous crime.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Murari Kharel is Nepal's national human rights commissioner. He says the governments of India and Nepal and humanitarian agencies are one step behind the traffickers.

  • Murari Kharel:

    They are trying to find the orphan children in the street and trying to bring them in their contact and trafficking, basically in the hospital, big hospitals in India.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    In particular, one hospital. Nepal investigative officials told the "NewsHour" each new victim led them to the same hospital, Rabindranath Tagore International Institute for Cardiac Sciences in Kolkata.

    It's been in the headlines for illegal kidney transplants in the past, but has never been prosecuted by Indian authorities.

    Dr. Sanjay Nagral, Co-Chair, Declaration of Istanbul Custodian Group: When a single hospital is being repeatedly in the news, clearly, there seems to be a problem.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Dr. Sanjay Nagral leads an association of global experts from more than 100 countries that creates international norms for transplant procedures. He accuses the medical field of looking the other way and the rich of exploiting the poor.

  • Dr. Sanjay Nagral:

    There's a lot of money riding on it, individuals who need kidneys, who — some of them moneyed. A lot of transplantation in South Asia, including India, is done in the private sector. And it is the huge money involved.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    The "NewsHour"'s calls and e-mails to hospital authorities and health officials in India went unanswered.

  • Dr. Francis Delmonico, Former President, United Network For Organ Sharing:

    If a doctor is violating the law that prohibits the buying and selling of organs, the doctor should not be able to continue with that practice.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Dr. Francis Delmonico is a transplant surgeon and the former president of United Network For Organ Sharing, which oversees transplantations in the United States. He says Indian health officials need to do more.

  • Dr. Francis Delmonico:

    Organ trafficking has been a repetitive experience in India year after year after year. So, for Indian colleagues, it's no surprise. For the international community, it's a major disappointment that the government of India has not come forward to prohibit such practice.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    Responsibility also lies with the home country. Santosh's village is also home to Nepal's first budding attempts to stop the kidney trade.

    At one time, 150 victims were found in a village, but only three cases were reported. So Nepal's police anti-human trafficking unit tries to convince villagers to expose traffickers. Malla tells residents from 12 villages, we will not give in to organ trafficking.

  • Dan Bahadur Malla (through translator):

    Human trafficking in Nepal is an organized crime, and the nexus of traffickers is well-connected from here to other countries. This is modern slavery, and we all need to do more to stop this.

  • Zeba Warsi:

    And until that happens, Santosh and so many other Nepalis are at risk of being exploited.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" I am Zeba Warsi in Nepal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And you can read much more on the issue of organ trafficking in Nepal online.

    That's at

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