Gangs from Turkey benefit from human smuggling in Mediterranean: EU

Gangs from Turkey benefit from human smuggling in Mediterranean: EU

BRUSSELS – Associated Press
Gangs from Turkey benefit from human smuggling in Mediterranean: EU

A woman with two children sits on a boat carrying migrants upon their arrival at the Cretan port of Ierapetra on Nov. 27, 2014. Around 700 migrants were aboard a freighter that had been drifting in the Aegean Sea for two days after leaving the Turkish coast. AFP Photo

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, while criminal gangs from Turkey are homing in on a share of the profits.

That’s the picture of an increasingly sophisticated business in migrant smuggling painted by European officials and an EU document.

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,” said the analysis compiled by security experts for EU policy makers.

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,” said the EU document.

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.

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 Associated Press.

The Internet is also a good method for buying cargo ships that carry migrants across the Mediterranean, according to EU border agency Frontex. It said about 15 cargo ships with would-be asylum seekers aboard have tried to reach Europe since August 2014. More than 1,000 migrants were rescued in two incidents in the last few weeks alone. Frontex spokeswoman 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.

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.