Human smuggling industry finds huge success in social media marketing
Reported by Nigel Boys
Social media has made it easy for hundreds of migrants to be smuggled into European countries without a trace, according to Abdul Aziz, a smuggler from the Libyan port of Zuwara.
The boat-runner, who is among hundreds of people smugglers advertising their services on Facebook, brags that his web of influence not only stretches across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, but also into sub-Sahara Africa.
“If people can’t get here to Libya, I have legal and illegal ways to get them into the county,” Aziz boasts in an interview on Skype with the BBC, claiming to have agents in ‘al-most every Arab state.’”
“With the beginning of the new season we have a range of journeys on offer,” states one of Aziz’s Facebook posts. “Turkey – Libya – Italy, $3,800, Algeria – Libya – Italy, $2,500, Sudan – Libya – Italy, $2,500 … The boats are all wood … If you have questions, contact me on Viber or WhatsApp.”
With glowing testimonies from supposed migrants who have used their services, along with a special offer of “Kids go free,” the smugglers’ pages advertise fake documents and safe passages by land, air or sea, complete with photos of luxury cruise liners and new passports.
While over 35,000 migrants are reported to have reached Italy since the beginning of 2015, another approximately 1,800 are thought to have drowned in their journey towards a new life. Smugglers’ boats leaving Libya are believed to have been responsible for over 220,000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean last year. Some of the migrants are lucky to be rescued at sea by the Italian coastguard or navy, but others’ dreams end in a watery demise.
“Until 2012, we didn’t use social media at all,” Aziz told the BBC, adding that now around 10 to 20 people contact him daily through his Facebook page. “Now, it accounts for between 30 percent and 40 percent of my business.”
Smugglers advertise themselves and their services proudly online without the slightest fear of being brought to justice for their crimes since the collapse of the Libyan state. “What authorities? There aren’t any authorities. There isn’t even a regime. There’s nothing,” Aziz said, laughing at the suggestion that his Facebook page might lead to his arrest by authorities.
Calling the industry the “big-gest travel company in the world,” Italian journalist Giampaolo Musumeci, who has writ-ten a book about North Africa’s smuggling gangs, said the smugglers’ social media presence is “part of the marketing operation.” He claims that smuggling operations have been ongoing for at least 30 years, with African migrants sailing from Zuwara.
Even though new European Union proposals to distribute migrants across member states aim at reducing people smuggling in Europe, Musumeci believes that as long as migrants want to find a new life, people smugglers will continue to thrive. He adds that European politicians’ unwillingness to meet the demand for asylum is one of the main reasons for smugglers’ success.
“They’re thinking about how to get into Europe 24 hours a day … They communicate. They stay in touch. They change routes,” said Musumeci about the smugglers. “One of these guys told me, ‘We study Europe, we study the laws, and the more you close the borders the more money we’re going to make’.”