Facebook investigates smugglers' 'advert' of boat trips to Italy

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Facebook was investigating on Friday a report that people smugglers were using its U.S.-based website to sell tickets on a new boat route from Turkey into the European Union that lands in Italy and avoids the main entry point of Greece.

Refugees and migrants sit next to their belongings before boarding a bus heading to other parts of the country where they will be accommodated, at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece March 31, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

A spokeswoman for the social networking company told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they were looking into the origins of an advert which was offering passage on boats to Italy from the Turkish port of Mersin at $4,000 per person.

The advert, reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Friday but no longer visible on Facebook, appeared after Turkey agreed with the European Union this month to return migrants and refugees who cross illegally to Greece.

In the past two years scores of would-be migrants seeking to escape conflict in the Middle East have used Facebook as their compass for finding the people smugglers they hope will lead them to a better life in Europe.

But this advert appeared to shed light on a new, more lucrative route used by traffickers with the trip to Italy costing about four times as much as a boat to Greece, the main route used by more than one million migrants in the past year.

“The trip is on Saturday, from Mersin to Italy, on a merchant ship 110 meters long, equipped with food, water, life jackets and medicine,” the Guardian quoted the Facebook post as saying.

Reacting to the advert, some refugees told the Guardian that the scheme could be a scam as scores of would-be migrants have been tricked in the past two years by people posing as organizers of similar trips.

Turkey has agreed to start retaking rejected asylum seekers from April 4 with the plan designed to end the uncontrolled influx of migrants and refugees across the Aegean Sea to Greece in the past year.

More than a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond have poured into Europe in the last year, most ending up in Germany, triggering a political backlash and pitting EU governments against each other.

Under the terms of the deal, Turkey would receive financial aid, faster visa-free travel for Turks and slightly accelerated EU membership talks.

But the United Nations called on Friday for legal safeguards to be in place before refugees are returned to Turkey under the agreement with the EU, while warning that conditions in Greece are deteriorating.