UK

People-Smugglers Are Advertising Their Illegal Businesses On Facebook

'A free tool to lure people into the hands of abusers.'

26/09/2017 18:48 BST | Updated 27/09/2017 10:31 BST

Facebook has been accused of “facilitating harm and misery” because of people-smugglers openly advertising their illegal services on the social media platform.

Details of trip times, contact phone numbers, transport costs and even advice specifically for people without documentation are contained on a number of public pages discovered using a simple keyword search of the Arabic for “Libya” and “Italy”.

Facebook

This post translates as:

The trip from Libya to Italy costs 2900 Libyan dinar. For those nationalities in Tripoli and don’t have papers, there is a smuggler in Tripoli, in Sabratha for 200 Libyan dinar and after that from Sabratha to Italy, 2900 Libyan dinar. For specific inquiries, talk to me privately.   

People-smuggling is illegal under international law.

HuffPost UK found a number of pages advertising the Central Mediterranean smuggling route from Libya to Italy used by nearly 90,000 migrants in 2017, although how many made the trip with the help of a Facebook page is impossible to determine.

Some pages describe themselves as “travel companies”, have “call now” widgets in their search descriptions and have been liked hundreds of times. 

Facebook

The pages paint a deceiving picture of the reality people face when trying to cross the Mediterranean, referring to “7 hour trips” to waiting Italian Coastguard boats using pictures of relatively sturdy wooden boats.

Facebook

Peace be upon you. Libya to Italy. Serious inquiries only, upcoming trip. Wooden boat. $1000 dollars. 

The reality is very different - HuffPost UK last month witnessed first hand how migrants are packed onto unseaworthy inflatable dinghies not designed to cross seas.

Consequently these vessels often collapse, throwing their occupants into the sea and creating a corrosive mix of fuel and seawater.

Aboard the NGO rescue ship, the Aquarius, HuffPost UK saw the transfer of eight burned bodies of people who had drowned attempting the journey.

The news comes as Facebook comes under increasing pressure to take on more social responsibility for content posted on the site as it seeks to “bring the world closer together”. 

The world’s largest social network with 2 billion monthly users, has recently been accused of allowing Russian propaganda to influence the US 2016 election, censoring Muslim refugees fleeing Myanmar and the targeting of “Jew-hater” groups with paid advertising.

Under pressure from the House and Senate intelligence committees investigating Russian meddling in the US election, Mark Zuckerberg made a rare public statement, saying: “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity. . . . I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy.

“There will always be bad actors in the world. . . . We can make it harder [for them], and that’s what we’re going to focus on doing.”

But so far Zuckerberg has not announced as proactive approach towards other areas, people-smuggling amongst them.

Leonard Doyle, spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told HuffPost UK: “Since Facebook provides the free tools that lure hundreds of thousands of migrants into the hands of their abusers, it has more than a little responsibility for what happens when migrants are subsequently beaten, tortured, extorted for money and sold into slavery.

“How many fewer boys and girls, pregnant women and other vulnerable migrants would have fallen into the nightmare of detention and abuse in Libya and elsewhere smugglers operate with impunity, if the smugglers were unable to sell their ‘services’ on Facebook pages, or send their torture videos to extort money from migrant families on WhatsApp?

“We need are more grown-up and responsible approach from a company whose website facilitates harm and misery on an industrial scale.” 

Facebook

For migration hahaha, no comment. Cartoon reads: Father: we’re practicing for migration.  

Europol has said it believes “some migrant smugglers rely on social media to advertise their services”.

In a report last year, the organisation said: “These platforms are also used by migrant smugglers and irregular migrants to share information on developments along migration routes, including law enforcement activities, changes in asylum procedures, or unfavourable conditions in countries of destination.”

The pages do breach Facebook’s Community Standards on illegal activity and three were taken down when the social media giant was alerted to their existence.

Facebook told HuffPost UK in a statement: “People smuggling is illegal and any posts, pages or groups that co-ordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook and will be taken down.

“We urge people to keep using our reporting tools to flag this kind of behaviour so it can be reviewed and swiftly removed by our global team of experts, who work with law enforcement agencies around the world.”

But relying on the public instead of adopting a proactive approach has been deemed insufficient.

Doyle added: “Simply asking the public to report illegal activities occurring on its own platform suggests a shocking lack of concern for the harm that is occurring or the anguish of families being extorted for money in order to save their kin from the clutches of criminals.

“Allowing smugglers to exploit migrants now - that’s happening as we speak. 

“They should just shut them down, they’re illegal, they should just shut them down fast. They take months to do it.”

The journey across the Mediterranean is only one part of a much longer migratory route that begins in North African countries such as Niger and Somalia and crosses the Libyan desert where more people die than drown in the Mediterranean.

Once they reach Libya the vast majority of migrants are subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, forced prostitution and even being sold in markets as slaves.

During our time aboard the Aquarius, HuffPost UK heard a range of extraordinary stories from the people who had just been plucked to safety.

A 20-year-old Ghanian man told HuffPost UK: “You can’t go out [of prison] even to get food. They take you and sell you. They sell you like a chicken.”

Another, 34-year-old Joseph, said: “They call us ‘slave’. They beat us with the back of their guns or a wooden stick”. In my presence they killed 19 people. 15 were from Nigeria.

“When they kidnap you they tell you to call your family for money. If you don’t get money from your family they [imprison] you for four months. They shoot your leg first.

“Then they kill you if you don’t pay.”

Obviously none of this is mentioned by the people-smugglers on Facebook who instead display pictures of successful rescues.

Facebook

Thank God, we completed the arrival of migrants from Libya to Italy. Who wants to go with us?

Doyle said: “Why do we think so many migrants go to Libya? Because they’re sold a dream, they’re sold an El Dorado nonsense dream that they believe because they’re poor, they’re uneducated, they’re desperate.”

Another rescued person aboard the Aquarius laid bare the stark difference between what is promised and the reality.

He said: “I want to tell my story because I want people to know what is happening in Libya. If I could say anything it would be to tell people not to come to Libya. Once you enter Libya you can never get out. 

“You can’t go home. You either get on the boat or you die.”