Human traffickers throughout North Africa and the Middle East are using Facebook, Viber and other social media tools to recruit clients from across the region.
As European officials wrestle a major migrant crisis in southern Europe — nearly 2,000 people have died in Mediterranean shipwrecks since the start of 2015 — the smugglers are turning the flood of refugees fleeing war-torn regions into a booming multi-million dollar business online.
“It was so easy,” Eduard, a migrant in his 20s, told Mashable. He crossed the Mediterranean on a decrepit fishing boat from Libya in 2014 after using Facebook to find an smuggling agency that helped him make the journey. Eduard was adrift for nearly 24 hours before a coast guard plucked him and 120 others from the sea.
Mohammed, another man who made the crossing, said it took about a week of shopping around online to find the right broker. The first person he spoke to wanted money weeks in advance, Mohammed told Mashable at the New Tiger Club, a haunt for refugees new to Malta. Fearing he would be duped, he opted for another boat. Mohammed and its operator communicated using the Facebook Messenger app before switching to Viber.
Both Eduard and Mohammed said they paid smugglers €3,000 in cash (about $3,262) for their tickets to cross. Cash was exchanged with smugglers at a dock after sundown days before their departure. There were no captains on their boats. In each case, smugglers pulled two men aside to explain how to operate the vessels’ engines, and then shoved them off, they said.
The ongoing wars in Libya and Syria have created lucrative opportunities for smugglers, whose new modus operandi aligns well with the Internet habits of young people, who comprise a majority of the refugees who brave the perilous journey across the sea. Just this week, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a stalled bill to fight human trafficking
Last weekend, when more than 800 died during a shipwreck, 23 of the 24 rescued migrants buried in Malta were men in their mid-20s. One was a teenage boy.
“Migration is a dynamic process,” said Maria Pisani, director of the Malta-based Integra Foundation, an nonprofit organization that has worked to help migrants integrate into society since 2004. Pisani has seen firsthand the shift in methods and tools used to smuggle people in.
“The vast majority of asylum seekers are young people, and they connect through social media,” she told Mashable. “Information flows through social networks…
It should come as no surprise, given our globalized world, that social media is being used as a tool to market the smugglers industry.”
The authorities are catching on.
A recent risk analysis report by Frontex, the European Union’s border patrol agency, highlights how smugglers are increasingly taking advantage of Facebook and Twitter. The report points to Facebook pages that advertise illegal boat journeys across the Mediterranean, including one offering monthlong tourist visas to Syrians and Palestinians hoping to travel to Greece or Denmark.
Many of the Facebook pages that offer passage to Europe by way of the Mediterranean advertise seats on what are oftentimes rickety old boats or rubber rafts for €7,000 — sometimes as high as €10,000 — which, for many hopeful to make the crossing, amounts to a life’s savings.
Social media “allows a sort of ‘shopping’ by migrants to find the most suitable deal for them, which is likely one of the reasons behind a concerted move by certain nationalities towards particular destinations,” the Frontex report states.
A Facebook user from Mersin, Turkey, a large port city on the country’s southern coast, who goes by the inconspicuous name of “Turkish Smuggler,” advertised trips to “any country in Europe” for €7,000 on Wednesday.
Another message from “Turkish Smuggler,” posted to Facebook on April 15, gave a deadline of the next day for booking a spot on a 70-meter-long vessel. The price for that trip: €5,500.
“Children under eight are free,” the post states, along with a Viber number to call a company named Abu Stayf Travel.
A March 18 post offers to smuggle refugees through Greece to Serbia and beyond for about $3,000.
Mashable called two of the Viber numbers advertised. A male voice on the other end hung up after I identified myself. When I called again later, the number had been disconnected.
A second number listed on Facebook did not connect, and Viber did not return our requests for comment.
“Wishing to immigrate to Europe through Libya” is another page that appears to have been used to recruit people looking to set sail to Europe.
“Europe awaits you … welcoming you … Anyone who wants to go to send a message to the page,” reads a (roughly translated) post on the page from Sept. 7, 2014.
“Our goal is your safety… and to get you to safety,” reads another post from the same page, seen below, from last August. The page appears to have gone silent after Sept. 30.
Yet another Facebook account, called “Immigration and Travel to Europe,” offers guidance to refugees looking to apply for asylum in Europe, giving very specific advice on how to reach Sweden. Many of the pages also include testimonials of former clients who have successfully made the journey.
A Facebook spokesperson told Mashable that the company has “a good working relationship” with law enforcement agencies, including Frontex and Europol, the EU law-enforcement coordination body, across the region, and has “well-established processes” for the law enforcement agencies to contact them.
“It is against Facebook’s community standards to post content which coordinates people smuggling and such content will be removed when reported to us,” the spokesperson said. “We encourage people to use the reporting links found across our site so that our team of experts and review content swiftly.”
But many of the pages continue to go unreported.
One problem, for both the authorities and for Facebook, is that tracking such pages down can be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Each time a page is shuttered, another pops up in its place. A quick search in Arabic, for example, shows dozens that are currently still in use.
That “Immigration and Travel to Europe” Facebook page also provides a Viber number for an underground railroad operation that says it moves refugees throughout Europe, suggesting that the smuggling operation extends far beyond the expanses of the sea. “For serious people,” its ads read, along with a Viber number. The number was not in service when Mashable called on Friday.
Still, people will find a way. There are simply too many migrants — 1 million, according to EU estimates — on the other side of the Mediterranean who are ready and willing to risk everything for a chance at a better life in Europe. And wherever they are, smugglers will be there, too.
“They will never stop,” Eduard, the migrant who successfully crossed the Mediterranean, said of the smuggling operations and sea crossings. “We will always come, because we believe there is something better for us here.”