People smugglers are openly using Facebook and other social media sites to target people in developing countries — taking advantage of their desperation to start a new life elsewhere.
In the past year alone, officials in the UK have identified 539 social media pages — mainly on Facebook — advertising routes to Europe.
And the “travel agent” style adverts are reportedly reassuring, according to the Guardian, giving the impression that it would be for normal transport.
In reality, people are being packed into small boats with no life jackets, and set adrift on the Mediterranean.
Some sites were also highlighted as offering discounted rates for children.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced a crackdown on social media sites being used to advertise human trafficking, at a summit on migration in Salzburg, Austria.
“We must now match out pursuit of people smugglers and traffickers with a renewed effort to prevent immigration crime from occurring in the first place,” May told EU leaders at the summit.
“To achieve this, we must tackle the enabling environment — all those factors that make it far too easy for criminal networks to emerge and grow, putting migrants’ lives at such risk,” she said.
May suggested that the same techniques used to tackle extremism online should be used to combat human traffickers.
“Online platforms have no respect for borders,” May said at a working dinner with fellow leaders, emphasising that the UK would still be fully committed to international cooperation on the “generational challenge” of migration after Brexit.
Those people being targeted by the social media adverts are largely fleeing poverty, hunger, and conflict, and they generally have no other option in reaching Europe and seeking asylum than using the services of people smugglers — putting their and their children’s lives at risk.
BREAKING: The #Aquarius has just finished a rescue of small boat in distress in international waters off the coast of #Libya. The boat was overcrowded & slowly taking on water, with many exposed to fuel. No one had lifejackets. All 11 people are now safe on board. pic.twitter.com/BjpzGA1Sq0— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) September 20, 2018
Just this month, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, released figures showing that the Mediterranean migration route is proportionally deadlier than it has ever been.
While the highest number of deaths and people going missing in the Mediterranean — 5,096 — was recorded in 2016, and the number has been falling since, making the crossing has proportionally become much more dangerous.
In 2016, according to UNHCR, for every one person who died, 70 made it safely to shore. This year, however, 1 in every 18 people who have attempted the journey across the Mediterranean Sea have either died or gone missing.
“With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives,” said Pascale Moreau, UNHCR’s direct of the bureau for Europe.
The UN puts the blame for the number of deaths on the hostile attitude of many European countries towards the rescue missions operating in the Mediterranean. There have been several high profile cases in recent months of countries literally refusing to allow search-and-rescue ships to dock and let injured and vulnerable people disembark.
“A major factor contributing to the increased death rate is the decreased search and reduce capacity off the Libyan coast this year compared to the same period last year,” said UNHCR in the report.
And Amnesty International has said that the whole of Europe is complicit in the deaths of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean.
Those who claim NGOs are "pulling" migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean Sea by funding life-saving search and rescue missions clearly have no understanding of the push factors that force millions of men, women and children to flee their homes every year.— Isabella Alexander (@isabella_writes) September 15, 2018
“Responsibility for the mounting death toll falls squarely on European governments who are more concerned with keeping people out than they are with saving lives,” said Matteo de Bellis, researcher on asylum and migration at Amnesty.
At the Salzburg summit this week, European Council president Donald Tusk told leaders to “stop the migration blame game” — adding that rather than trying to take advantage of the situation politically, they should work for a solution.
“Despite the aggressive rhetoric, things are moving in the right direction,” he said. “So, instead of taking political advantage of the situation, we should focus on what works and just get on with it. We can no longer be divided into those who want to solve the problem of illegal migrant flows, and those who want to use it for political gain.”
But the solution must work for everyone — including those who are so desperate to leave their countries of origin that they’ll put their children’s lives at risk. If Europe is successful in stopping traffickers reaching potential migrants through social media adverts, it raises the question: What could these people do then?