Organ trade

the trade in human organs

Organ trade constitutes the sale and purchase of organs for financial or material gain. The World Health Organization first declared the prohibition of payments for organs in its 1987 World Health Assembly Resolution. Despite an almost-universal ban on the trade in human organs, reports indicate its proliferation across the globe.


Some numbers and estimations

  • Although reliable figures of the trade’s scope are lacking, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that approx. 5000 illegal transplants are performed annually;
  • Based on the estimate of WHO, the organ trade is reported to rank in the top 5 of the world’s most lucrative international crimes with an estimated annual profit of $840 million to $1.7 billion (May, 2017);
  • Only 16 convictions involving organ trade have been reported to the case law database of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is far less than would be expected based on global estimates of the problem. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported 9 additional cases;
  • The most frequently reported form of organ trade is the trade in living donor kidneys.


The proliferation of the organ trade goes hand-in-hand with the increasing worldwide scarcity:

  • Approximately 10% of the world’s population suffers from chronic kidney failure (ISN, 2017);
  • An estimated 2-7 million deaths occur annually because patients suffering from kidney failure lack access to adequate treatment (ISN, 2017);
  • Only roughly 200.000 patients are registered on kidney transplant wait lists worldwide (Council of Europe, 2019);
  • Approx. 75.000 (38%) of these patients receive a kidney transplant annually (Council of Europe, 2019);
  • The total number of transplants performed worldwide is estimated to be less than 10% of the global need;
  • Average wait times are 3-5 years and annual mortality rates are estimated to lie between 15-30%.


Organ trade involves a wide array of activities and many terms are used to denote these, including organ trafficking, transplant tourism, transplant commercialism and human trafficking for the purpose of organ removal. While laws do not always separate organ trade (payments for organs) from trafficking (exploitation), we use this distinction in our research.  Below we explain these concepts further.


Selected reading and sources

  • UNODC. (2022). Case Law Database. At:
  • Council of Europe. (2019). Newsletter Transplant. International figures on donation and transplantation. European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and Healthcare. Council of Europe.
  • ISN. (2017). International Society of Nephrology. Global Kidney Health Atlas.
  • May, C. (2017). Transnational Crime in the Developing World. Global Financial Integrity.
  • Lundin, S. (2016). Organs for Sale: An Ethnographic Examination of the International Organ Trade: Springer.
  • Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (2013). Trafficking in Human Beings for the Purpose of Organ Removal. Analysis and Findings. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Vienna, Austria. Available at
  • WHO. (2007). The state of the international organ trade: a provisional picture based on integration of available information. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 85(12), 955-962.