SOCIAL SMUGGLERS: Human Traffickers are Using Social Media to Lure Migrants in the Mediterranean

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 9.30.10 AMIf it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

VALLETTA, Malta — 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.

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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.

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