African Migrants Are 'Being Sold for Their Organs'

African migrants on board an Italian rescue vessel
Men stand wrapped in blankets after a rescue operation of refugees and migrants at sea of the rescue ship 'Aquarius', on May 24, 2016 in front of the Libyan coast. A former trafficker has claimed that smugglers are selling migrants for large sums before they have their organs harvested. Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Smugglers are selling African migrants unable to afford the fare to make the arduous journey across the Mediterranean to organ harvesters, a former trafficker has claimed.

Nuredin Wehabrebi Atta revealed the practice to Italian authorities after his arrest in the country in 2014. Authorities gave him witness protection, which allowed him to come forward with the information.

The intelligence Atta has provided has reportedly led to the arrests of dozens of members of a criminal network making lucrative business out of the plight of migrants attempting to flee their home countries in Africa, The Times reported.

"I was told that the people who can't pay are given to Egyptians who kill them to take their organs and sell them in Egypt for $15,000," he said to investigators. "The Egyptians come equipped to remove the organ and transport it in insulated bags." He added that the smugglers also sold the organs of migrants who died at sea on the journey to Italy.

An Italian court sentenced Atta to five years in prison in February for his role in trafficking. His assistance led to Palermo's anti-mafia unit opening an investigation into the criminal network.

According to Italian media, he changed his mind about collaborating with authorities after "too many had died, in particular at Lampedusa on October 3 2013," where 359 perished at sea. "The deaths that we are aware of are a small part of it," he reportedly told police in Palermo. "In Eritrea alone there have been victims in eight out of 10 families."

The network was based out of a perfume shop in Rome, near the city's Termini train station. Authorities seized more than half a million euros ($586,760) from the criminal front in June. Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said that authorities had struck "a harsh blow" against the sophisticated network.

Speculation has mounted that traffickers are selling the organs of migrants after images emerged of Somali nationals on an Egyptian beach with severe scarring that suggested the removal of vital body parts.

Organ harvesting is one gruesome stream of revenue for organized criminal networks, with wealthy patients willing to pay extortionate sums for kidneys, hearts and pancreases.