Facebook pages apparently set up by smugglers are specifically targeting Syrians as part of a new method of recruiting refugees to pay for places on board ships bound for Europe.
One post promises “commercial ships equipped with all the safety features”. The alleged traffickers claim that “all expenses will be on us” before and during the journey.
Two weeks ago, a ship crammed with migrants and abandoned by its crew arrived in the Italian port of Corigliano Calabro after being towed in by the Italian coastguard.
All of the 360 migrants on board were from Syria. The Ezadeen was the second abandoned ship to be found in a week after the Blue Sky M freighter was found with 796 migrants on board.
Channel 4 News understands that 15 cargo ships have arrived in Italy since September.
Another of the pages includes a photo claiming to be one of the ships arriving in Italy to “hospitality” with “health and wellbeing”.
The page then encourages refugees to book a place on the next trip for $6,000 USD, giving a phone number to “register” for places.
The pages claim to be able to offer Syrian refugees a “safe passage” from Turkey to Italy on board a ship leaving later this month.
On one Facebook page, smugglers say an 85-metre vessel will leave the Turkish city of Izmir on 20 January. The post says that refugees can buy a place on a four-day trip to Italy for $5,500 USD.
Most of the pages are targeted at Syrians living in Turkey – most of whom have recently fled their homeland after nearly four years of civil war.
A record 150,000 refugees arrived in Italy on boats in 2014, according data released by Italy’s interior ministry, and the number is likely to rise this year.
Most of the pages give out phone numbers and say refugees can call to book tickets. Places on board the ships are advertised for between $5,000-6,000 USD. Children are offered free travel, and the site promises accommodation while refugees wait for the date of departure.
Fees for the trip are paid to an intermediary, who it is claimed holds the money until the ship safely arrives in Italy.
A post on one of the pages advises would-be refugees on what to expect in various European countries. A table compares wages, accommodation standards, and how quickly refugees could bring the rest of their family over for different countries.
Flavio Di Giacomo from the International Organisation for Migration told Channel 4 News that he had spoken to migrants who had arrived in Italy in December. They told him that they had paid between $4,000 and $6,000 USD each for a place on the six-day-long journey.
Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, told Channel 4 News: “There are Facebook pages that advertise the smugglers’ services. They are using all social media to expand their operations.
“A place on a freighter from Turkey costs at least three times the price of a ‘ticket’ on the usual sea route from Libya. And yet the migrants are willing to pay.
“The departure point of choice for facilitator networks in 2014, this increasingly lawless north African nation appears to have become too dangerous an operating environment even for the criminal gangs.”
She added: “These are typically decommissioned freighters, up to 75m long, procured in the ports of south eastern Turkey, notably Mersin: a departure point still connected by ferry to the Syrian port of Latakia, making it reachable for the tens of thousands of Syrians still fleeing the conflict in their country.
“The freighters, repaired and manned by crews sometimes hired from as far away as Russia, are piloted via Cyprus and Crete towards Italy, which remains the EU destination of choice for refugees from the Middle East.”
“Scrap vessels are expensive and difficult to procure, but high demand makes this method profitable. It shows how powerful and sophisticated the smuggling networks have become.”