Social media has become the new way for people smugglers to advertise their services. They often post ads on Facebook promising migrants a comfortable, safe journey to European shores. To find out more, a journalist from the Observers team posed as someone seeking to help his friend enter Europe and contacted the smugglers via phone numbers brazenly posted on the ads.
Many of these smugglers advertising their services are based in Mersin and Izmir, two cities on the Turkish coast; their clients are mainly Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country. Other smugglers are based in Libya, where they take advantage of the reigning chaos and complete lack of surveillance at the country’s borders. After reaching the northern Libyan coast, most migrants seek to cross the Mediterranean and enter Italy, often via the now-notorious Italian island of Lampedusa, the gateway to Europe.
On Facebook, smugglers resort to all sorts of methods to lure potential clients, often sharing photos that promise a luxurious, comfortable trip across the Mediterranean on a yacht.
Screen grab from a Facebook page offering migrants passage to Italy on a yacht, for 5,500 dollars.
A journalist from the Observers team contacted two smugglers who advertise their services on Facebook. He told them that he was trying to help a Syrian friend and his wife and child make the crossing and wanted information on the services they could provide. The first smuggler said he was in the city of Izmir, in southern Turkey. The second said he was based in Tripoli, Libya.
Here is the recording (in Arabic) of the conversation between the Observers journalist and the Libyan smuggler.
Below are translated excerpts from their conversation:
I am ready to give your friend a deal. Usually, I charge half price — 500 dollars — for kids under ten. But I’m willing to make an extra effort for your friend. I’ll let the kid go for free. As for the parents, my price is 1,000 dollars for each adult.
Our point of departure is the city of Zouara, near the Tunisian border [Editor’s note: this city is located about 120 kilometres west of Tripoli]. It’s the closest point to Lampedusa. The journey is very short; it only lasts eight hours.
Your friend needs to leave quickly because the situation in Libya is very tense. But in Zouara, everything is calm… we are far from the fighting.
"The sailors are equipped with a Thuraya satellite telephone, a GPS and a compass"
All of our boats are brand new. They are 26 metres long and can hold up to 500 people, though we only take 300 at a time. There will be a navigator in the boat with the passengers — he’ll be Tunisian, Moroccan or Libyan. The sailor will be equipped with a Thuraya satellite telephone, a GPS and a compass.
However, I would be lying to you if I told you that your friend could make the crossing as soon as tomorrow. It’s important to wait for good weather before setting sail. If your friend doesn’t have a place to stay in Zouara, we are happy to house and feed him free of charge until the departure. We are already housing several families.
I will give him the phone number for a trustworthy taxi driver who can pick him up in Tripoli and bring him to Zouara. My brother will wait for him there on the outskirts of town and then drive him to our housing.
If the boat is intercepted by the coastguards near Lampedusa, they will bring your friend to a camp there. He’ll be welcomed there, though he will have several mandatory vaccinations. The authorities will also make sure that he has no connections to terrorist activity, and then, they will give him paperwork which will allow him to travel throughout Italy and then to any other European country. He will also be given a work permit if he wants to work there.
"If anyone dares to raise a hand against him or his family, I will personally cut it off"
It’s true that there are a lot of rumours circulating about smugglers who treat passengers badly or even hit them, but reassure your friend. Tell him that if anyone dares to raise a hand against him or his family, I will personally cut their hand off.
We don’t provide our travellers with life jackets. But if your friend wants to buy one, he can. We sell them cheaply, they are only 35 dollars.
"All he needs is a little honey, some dates, fruit juice and water"
Your friend needn’t bring much with him because the journey isn’t long. If he wanted, he could maybe bring a little honey, some dates, some fruit juice and a little water.
As far as the payment goes, your friend can pay me when he gets to Zouara, or, if he prefers, he can pay me when he gets onto the boat. That’s not a problem at all; we are a very organised operation.
I’m currently in Tripoli because I’m meeting with several Syrian clients. Tell him to call me so that we can meet up and discuss all the details.
Our journalist also contacted an Egyptian national who works as smuggler in Turkey. Below is the recording, in Arabic.
Below are translated excerpts from their conversation:
For the time being, we don’t have any scheduled departures for Italy. However, we could bring your friend and his family to Greece and, then, after that, to the country of his choosing: Italy, France or Great Britain.
The journey from Turkey to Greece costs $1,200 per person. If he wants to travel on from Greece to any other European country, he’ll then have to pay more, this time in euros – we charge 3,000 euros for the adults and 1,500 euros for the kid.
"We can also provide him with false passports"
If your friend wants to travel by airplane to his European destination, we can provide him with fake passports. We charge 4,000 euros for this service. The kid is half price.
The simplest method for him to pay us is through a money transfer bureau in Izmir. All he needs to do is give me the code so that I can pick up the money at the other end. There are a lot of transfer bureaux in Izmir; he’ll find one easily.
"In a week, he’ll be with you in France"
We organise journeys like this daily. In a week, he’ll be with you in France. The boat trip from Izmir to the Greek shore only lasts 40 minutes. There is absolutely no danger except in case of really exceptional circumstances.
Our meeting point is in a suburb of Izmir. I will give him the exact location when he gets in contact with me. The boat itself is 9 metres long, it’s comfortable and it can hold 25 people at a time.
"If your friend is arrested in Greece, it’s not a problem"
If your friend is arrested in Greece, it’s not a problem. Authorities will hold him in a camp and then release him the next day. If he stays there six months, he can get a residency permit.
If your friend wants to travel to France by car, we can also arrange that. We have cars. If he chooses to do this, he’ll travel through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary before arriving in Austria. We don’t have any problem with border checkpoints — we have methods to deal with any problem that arises. Once your friend gets to Austria, he can take a taxi to France because he’ll already be within the Schengen Zone so there is no border control between countries.
Since the beginning of 2015, more than 1,750 migrants have died while crossing the Mediterranean, 30 times more than during the same period in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. On April 21, an estimated 800 people died when a migrant boat capsized near the Libyan coast in the “worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean,” according to the organisation.
Post written by France 24 journalist Djamel Belayachi (@DjamelBelayachi).