AFTER a period of relative quiet, ‘transplant tourism’ is again making a comeback. The term refers to the practice of foreigners visiting another country specifically to be transplanted with organs purchased from local donors. The Organised Crime Unit of Lahore recently busted what seemed to be a massive illegal organ transplant racket in that city being run from Dubai by three senior Pakistani doctors. Initial investigations show they were minting money by charging overseas patients exorbitant sums in foreign currency for kidney transplants at a farmhouse in Lahore’s upscale Defence Housing Authority. The cops claimed that while the ring leader of the gang, who was already notorious for carrying out illegal transplants, was safely in Dubai, the other two doctors present managed to elude arrest.

Until the practice was criminalised in 2007 through an ordinance — followed by an Act of parliament in 2010 — Pakistan had become infamous globally as a market for vended organs. After the legislation, transplant tourism — and, by all accounts, illegal transplants domestically — sharply declined. Over time, lax implementation once again breathed new life into the racket, which includes doctors, police and middlemen/agents. Makeshift ‘transplant centres’ sprang up in urban residential areas. Then, international pressure and media spotlight led to another crackdown on organ trafficking rings, this time for a more sustained period. Even during these years though, some criminal-minded doctors employed cloak-and-dagger methods to evade detection. Several were caught and charged, but the criminal justice system has never been able to effectively put even habitual offenders, at least the medical professionals, out of business completely. Why not, is a question worth asking. Conditions in Pakistan on the governance and economic fronts are extremely conducive to the reemergence of the racket, particularly in these economically straitened times when more and more people have fallen into poverty. Continued vigilance and strict application of the law are critical to prevent the country from reverting into a black market for organs.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2023