LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Facebook is failing to prevent people smugglers and human traffickers from luring in victims through the social network, law enforcement officials in Britain said on Friday.
Criminal gangs are openly advertising “travel agent” style services into Europe which conceal the risk of death or entrapment, said Chris Hogben, who leads Britain’s Organised Immigration Crime taskforce.
“More often than not, these adverts are quite reassuring, they create an illusion this is very much normal travel, it’s safe, it’s easy,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Tragically, when you look at quite a few of these adverts they might be advertising big luxury yachts or ships. When the migrants turn up to get transported they find they are being packed onto a rib or a small boat without safety jackets.”
Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said it worked closely with law enforcement agencies to identify and remove pages linked to smuggling and trafficking.
The number of illegal migrants into Europe has dropped sharply from its peak of more than a million in 2015, but tens of thousands still attempt the journey each year.
Just under 75,000 people have arrived so far in 2018, with the majority traveling on overpacked boats across the Mediterranean which have left 1,524 dead or missing, said the International Organisation for Migration.
However, the risks are far from apparent in pages set up by smuggling gangs on social media, which often offer descriptions of routes and prices.
One even included a discount for children, said Hogben at Britain’s National Crime Agency, which works to counter serious and organized crime.
The NCA has identified more than 800 pages linked to smuggling gangs since late 2016 on Facebook and asked the social media giant to remove them.
Hogben said Facebook was responsive to such requests, but should be investing more to tackle the problem, including developing algorithms to flag up suspicious pages.
“If we can find them easily then obviously social media companies including Facebook can find them just as easily,” he said. “There’s a lot more that social media companies could do to make it better.”
Neil Wain, international program director at anti-trafficking charity Hope for Justice, welcomed the British authorities’ focus on the issue.
He said most victims were still initially contacted by smugglers in person or by telephone, but that “there is no doubt that the use of digital technology and social networks for this purpose is on the rise”.
A Facebook spokesman said the company had doubled its safety and security team to 20,000 and was investing in technology.
“People smuggling is illegal and any ads, posts, pages or groups that co-ordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook,” he said.
Reporting by Sonia Elks, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, resilience and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.