Fleeing Via Facebook: Desperate Migrants Find Smugglers Online

Migrants & refugees land on the Greek shore. — Nikolas Georgiou/ZUMA Wire
Jun 12, 2015 at 3:08 PM ET

The smugglers’ Facebook posts are public: “Safe and comfortable boat to Greece, 2,200 Euros,” one says in Arabic. “Twenty-eight meter yacht to Italy for $5,000,” says another.

The social media advertisements target a desperate clientele—mostly Syrians displaced by war and looking to continue their lives on Europe’s safer shores. With few legal pathways to the continent, the migrants who make up the current surge have turned to smugglers who help them breach its borders by land, air or sea.

Despite E.U. vows to crack down on smugglers in the wake of a string of at-sea disasters this year, they continue to do brisk business—some of which is conducted in plain sight. The Facebook pages not only include photos of vessels and estimated departure dates, but also the phone numbers of people who describe themselves as smugglers.

And the information is mostly legitimate, according to a smuggler operating out of an office he rents in Istanbul’s Aksaray district, where many refugees who come to the city wind up. The smuggler, a Syrian who requested anonymity, told Vocativ the Facebook pages were one method of recruitment used by colleagues further down the chain.

“They are not smugglers. They are middlemen,” he said. “I am a smuggler.”

They come to him when they have found enough people for a trip, he says, and in exchange he pays them between $100 and $200 for every refugee they’ve signed up. Then, the smuggler takes it from there, telling the migrants about the risks and dangers that may have been glossed over in the middlemen’s pitch.

One smuggler, contacted via his Facebook page, for example, claimed that once refugees made it to Greece, police “take them to 5-star hotels” on the government’s dime.

The claim elicited laughs from the other Syrians in the smuggler’s office—one of whom was had previously been detained upon illegally entering Greece. “The police might beat you,” he said.

The smuggler is very conscious of risks involved. He says several of his own family members died attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya in a trip he helped arrange last year. His brother and cousin, who knew how to swim and survived, explained that the engine on the over-crowded boat caught fire.

Since then, the smuggler said, he refuses to send anyone to Europe from Libya, which he characterizes as a launching point that is cheaper, but inhumane.

“They don’t care about people’s lives,” he said. “Here in Turkey if a boat fits 70 people, we will put 100. But in Libya, if a boat fits 70, they will put 400,” he said.

Still, the demand to get to Europe by any means necessary is keeping smugglers in Libya busy. “People who don’t have money choose the deadly way,” the smuggler said.

Indeed, the route from Libya to Italy is both the most trafficked and deadly for migrants, according to Frontex, the European border agency that is tracking the crisis. More than 170,000 of the 280,000 migrants who crossed into Europe last year relied on that route, and thousands died along the way.

Following a string of at-sea disasters in April that took the lives of more than 1,000 migrants, the E.U. convened an emergency meeting to discuss its response to the crisis. Leaders pledged to triple funding for search-and-rescue operations and also target smuggling networks, by destroying their vessels and operations.

“We have to break up their networks and undermine their business model. This is the best way to protect people from drowning, by ensuring they don’t get on the boat in the first place,” European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters before the emergency meeting.

The Istanbul smuggler doesn’t entirely disagree with this view. “They should blow up those ships,” he said. “Those people in Libya are criminals.”

Besides, he adds, “there are 100 other ways to go.”

As evidence, he produces a plastic bag full of stamps—copies of those used at airports to mark boarding passes as valid. He says he uses them in conjunction with stolen passports to help migrants evade airport authorities and get onto European-bound planes.

“He just sent a guy to France this way yesterday,” the smuggler said, pointing to another man in his office, who was scrolling through pictures of stolen passports on his cellphone.

If the plan fails, the smuggler said, the migrants might wind up in jail for a brief stint. After that, if they have enough money, they can simply try again.

The smuggler charges $10,000 for the package—a price he says some are willing to pay to eliminate the dangers and humiliations of other routes.

For example, migrants departing from Libya can pay as little as $1,000, he says, to be crammed into an overcrowded boat and launched in the direction of Italy, without any guarantee the boat won’t capsize.

The mid-range options, which involve comparatively short boat trips or overland treks between Turkey and Greece, go for around $3,000. From Greece almost all of the migrants continue on toward wealthier European countries that are better equipped to receive them and help get them on their feet.

Enes, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, hopes to get to Germany this way once he saves up enough money. He came to Turkey four years ago when the conflict in Syria began. Though he studied electrical engineering and speaks Arabic, Turkish and English, he has only been able to find work in the tourism industry. He hopes he can forge a better life in Germany, but has found no legal way to go.

“Getting smuggled is the only way we have,” he said.

Neither he nor the other Syrians lounging in the smuggler’s Istanbul office seemed to worry about getting caught.

“If you’re Syrian, they understand your situation. You’re a refugee, so they detain you for a little while and then let you out,” one said.

The smuggler, whose office is in an ordinary apartment building, on a bright and busy street, says he has to be somewhat careful but is not losing sleep over E.U. threats of a crackdown.

“Sometimes police come and ask me questions and I tell them I didn’t buy the ship, I didn’t send them out to sea, I just booked them transportation to a port,” he said.

He adds that as a matter of course, smugglers take many precautions. For example, the trips publicized on Facebook usually don’t depart when advertised. If a middleman tells a group of migrants that they will depart on Sunday, for example, the smuggler says they may not actually leave for several weeks. As they wait for good weather and for surveillance to wane, they keep the migrants waiting in a hotel or house.

But even if the Facebook pages were deleted and ships used for migrants were destroyed, the smuggler says that desperate people will continue to find other ways.

“If they close all the borders,” he said, “people will just dig tunnels and go to Europe underground.”