A photo of Sean Columb interviewing an organ trafficker in a damp looking room

Criminal Synergies: People Smuggling and the Organ Trade in North Africa

The ‘Criminal Synergies’ research project coordinated by Dr Seán Columb, funded by the British Academy (UK), explores migrant routes into and out of North Africa and its extra-legal service industry in a bid to increase awareness of the structural inequalities and policy decisions that render people vulnerable to exploitation in illicit markets.

In response to what was termed the “refugee crisis” the European Union provided funding to Egypt and Sudan to prevent and fight irregular migration and people smuggling from North Africa into Europe. This externalisation approach to migration management has correlated with an increase in violence against migrant populations who are routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest, confinement, and deportation.

Dr Seán Columb has been awarded £9,905 from the British Academy (UK) as part of the Leverhulme Small Research Grants to support this research project, entitled ‘Criminal Synergies: People Smuggling and the Organ Trade in North Africa’. Building on his previous research into the organ trade in North Africa and Europe, this project aims to consolidate and build upon existing findings - detailed in ‘Trading Life: Organ Trafficking, Illicit Networks, and Exploitation’ – to: (1) explore covert migrant routes into and out of North Africa; (2) explore the development of extra-legal activities (people smuggling and organ trading); and (3) assess the wider impact of European migration controls on refugees and displaced populations residing in North Africa.

In assessing the social and legal impact of EU strategies in managing and containing migrant populations in North Africa, from contrasting perspectives of key stakeholders (e.g. people smugglers, refugees, organ sellers, organ brokers, law enforcement) the research will provide insight to the nature and extent of people smuggling and its relationship with the organ trade, as well as other illicit markets (e.g. arms trade, sex trade).

Previous findings – as detailed in Seán’s book ‘Trading Life: Organ Trafficking, Illicit Networks, and Exploitation – gathered through interviews with African migrants in Cairo, Egypt (2014-2018) suggested that the militarisation of borders along the Central Mediterranean route has stimulated criminal synergies between smuggling networks and organ brokers. The findings also suggest that refugees and displaced persons who are denied state protection are also being targeted by organ brokers working in tandem with smugglers along covert migrant routes into and out of North Africa.

By exploring the empirical reality of this confined landscape and the unregulated service industry it has produced, the project, which runs from February 2021 until January 2024, will assist policymakers in developing more effective responses, with increased awareness of the structural inequalities and policy decisions that render people vulnerable to exploitation in illicit markets. Furthermore, this project will provide unique insight into the convergence of illicit networks and the development of criminal synergies along migrant routes. In doing so, it will provide a conceptual reflection on how law generates violence.

Given the centrality of immigration debates in the United Kingdom and the European Union, following the Brexit result and the political and economic uncertainty of COVID-19, there is an increased need to examine and explicate the unintended consequences of crime and immigration controls to further inform policy recommendations.

Underpinning Research

Seán's previous research identified Khartoum, Sudan, as a central hub for smuggling services into and out of Egypt. Several people interviewed recalled being incentivised into selling a kidney with the (false) promise of passage into the European Union. Others were referred to brokers in Cairo by smugglers, based in Khartoum, to raise funds to cover the cost of smuggling services into Europe. These interviews informed ‘Exposing the Illegal Organ Trade’, a BBC Panorama documentary on which Seán was a consultant, and articles published in The Guardian, titled ‘Organ Trafficking in Egypt: They locked me in and took my kidney’, and ‘Selling a kidney to reach Europe’ which vividly tell the stories of these people that have unfortunately been coerced into selling organs. 


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