BRUSSELS – Migrants dreaming of Europe have their pick of social media sites that work like an online travel agent, advertising fares and offering tips on secure payments. Meanwhile, the traffickers who send them floating across the Mediterranean are buying scrapyard cargo ships over the Internet.
That's the picture of an increasingly sophisticated business in migrant smuggling painted by European officials and an EU document seen by The Associated Press.
Information gathered from migrants rescued at sea "confirms that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are widely used to share information on how to enter the EU illegally," says the analysis compiled by security experts for EU policy makers.
The document underscores the ingenuity and flexibility of human traffickers, as Libya's mounting chaos forces them to turn away from the country as the preferred departure point.
With thousands of sub-Saharan Africans willing to pay as much as 2,000 euros ($2,400) for a spot in an overcrowded dinghy — and wealthier Syrians now barely flinching at shelling out 9,600 euros ($8,000) for a place aboard a rusty cargo ship — criminal gangs from Turkey are homing in on a share of the profits.
Social media, which helped spread the Arab Spring revolutions, are now a versatile tool in the hands of migrants and smugglers. Many use members-only Facebook accounts to share information about how to enter the EU illegally and elude authorities once inside.
"Would-be migrants exchange information that can vary from routes to be used, asylum-related general information, facilitators' contacts and also warnings regarding certain facilitators that usually just take advantage of migrants in order to obtain money from them," says the EU document.
One Facebook page, with several thousand likes, provides contacts via Viber and WhatsApp to an Istanbul office where secure payments for travel from Turkey to Greece can be made. Another has regularly updated information on travel document requirements in several countries, including Turkey. The sites have been confirmed by The AP.
The Internet is also a good method for buying cargo ships that carry migrants across the Mediterranean, according to EU border agency Frontex. It says that about 15 cargo ships with would-be asylum seekers aboard have tried to reach Europe since August. More than 1,000 migrants were rescued in two incidents last week alone. Frontex spokesperson Izabella Cooper said one of the vessels used last week appears to have been purchased online from a scrapyard.
While the smugglers share information online, there is little evidence they work as one gang. Crews have been variously Russian or Egyptian, and Frontex analysts have been unable to establish any pattern that might link the smugglers to any larger criminal enterprise.
"There is no evidence of these networks being connected. This might just be a new business opportunity that someone has picked up in Turkey," Cooper said in a telephone interview from Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, Poland.
Almost 170,000 people were rescued in the Mediterranean last year, but hundreds died and more are missing. EU border authorities are struggling against opportunistic tactics, such as migrants scuttling boats and throwing motors overboard once they spot a coast guard ship. Under international law, that turns the encounter into a search-and-rescue mission obliging the coast guard to haul the vessel to European shores.
Last week, smugglers used an even more dramatic method: They sent the Sierra-Leone-flagged Ezadeen at full throttle in rough seas toward the Italian coast with hundreds of people locked inside. They then abandoned ship in high seas. A Frontex vessel from Iceland eventually managed to tow the Ezadeen to Italy.
"It's like from the movies. You would never think that ghost ships going on full speed could happen in real life," Cooper said, "let alone with more than 360 people on board."