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“E-smuggling”: Europol steps up efforts to combat online-assisted migrant crossings

According to the EU police agency, in the past year 17,459 people operated as “human traffickers”. In the majority of cases, refugees and their facilitators communicate using Facebook or Telegram. Seizing of electronic evidence is thus to take on a greater role in investigations.

By Matthias Monroy

Last year, the EU police agency Europol received reports of 1,150 social media accounts apparently used by refugees to facilitate their entry into or travel through the European Union. This information is based on figures (PDF) published by the European Migrant Smuggling Center (EMSC) at Europol for 2016. The number of incriminated accounts in 2015 was just 148.

The report does not differentiate between humanitarian assistance for refugees and commercial offers. It is also unclear how many of the accounts were reported to the online providers to be removed. According to Europol, the rate of compliance with requests for deletion among companies was around 90 percent.

Responsible for investigating what is referred to as “E-smuggling” is the Joint Operation Team (JOT) MARE. It was previously part of the Europol “Checkpoint” Focal Point and has since been incorporated into the EMSC as an individual department. The work of “Checkpoint” includes maintaining a file with suspects. In 2016 alone, Europol identified 17,459 people as human traffickers.

JOT MARE is operated from Italy and its members include the Federal Criminal Police Office, the European Border Agency Frontex, and Interpol. Also associated with “Checkpoint” is the US immigration agency ICE. The team’s tasks also include observation of “vessels of interest” via satellite or tracking with transponders. Around 50 boats are currently placed on a watchlist.

Most accounts on Facebook or Telegram

In order to track content online, the EMSC works together with African countries. Most suspects are said to be located in Turkey, but Europol also reports of activities from accounts in Europe. In addition to crossing, falsified documentation and visas for Europe and North America are also offered.

The EMSC only finds a limited amount of the objectionable internet content itself. This is forwarded either by authorities in the EU Member States or tracked down by the “Internet Referral Unit” (EU IRU), which was also established at Europol two years ago. The initial aim of the department was to search for Islamic terrorist content and report this to internet providers for removal. A short time later, however, the EU IRU mandate was expanded to include content used by smugglers to attract migrants and refugees.

The EMSC’s annual report states that peer-to-peer networks are often used for accommodation and transport, for example via online ride-sharing sites. Most social media accounts were found on Facebook or Telegram (the equally widespread messaging service WhatsApp is likely included as part of Facebook). A report by the European Commission (PDF) also cites Twitter, VKontakte, Google Maps, Skype, Viber, YouTube, WordPress and Reddit as platforms.

Algorithms aim to automate the search

As a form of organised crime, “migrant smuggling” violates the community standards of many providers; such accounts are thus deleted. However, a platform such as Facebook provides no active capacities to observe and monitor “migrant smuggling”; the phenomenon lags behind child pornography and terrorism on the list of priorities. The Commission’s report also points out that the operators are not obligated to carry out monitoring activities.

The companies do not always fulfil requests to delete content. In other cases, the EU Member State in which the provider is located objects to its removal. According to the EMSC, since July 2015, authorities in EU Member States prevented accounts being deleted in 41 cases in favour of the criminal prosecution authorities, for whom an online presence is often the only way to be able to carry out investigations at all.

The report refers to a questionnaire by the European Commission which indicated that numerous suspects conceal their identity, use the Darknet, create websites with restricted access or use encrypted messaging services. Problems in digital investigations are also posed by the large volumes of data and the variety of languages used. In order to cut costs, the Commission recommends developing algorithms to automatically track “migrant smuggling”. The “Internet Referral Unit” is to draft the necessary criteria for these.

More evaluation of electronic evidence

The information found by the EMSC should additionally be used for “predicting migratory flows”. Corresponding “trends” are disseminated in intelligence notifications to EU Member States, where they ultimately lead to police action. As an example of success, the EMSC annual report cites the breaking up of a Turkish network, which used cargo ships to smuggle migrants into the European Union. Twelve people on their way to Slovenia were subsequently arrested along with their facilitators.

The Commission and Europol wish to further ease investigations into “migrant smuggling”. New procedures are currently being developed aiming to circumvent the laborious legal path through the public prosecution office. To this end, the European Union and the Council of Europe are working on provisions for digital “investigation into the facts in criminal proceedings” and the release of what is referred to as electronic evidence, which could also then be applied in cases of “migrant smuggling”. In addition, more counter-narratives are to be placed online, on television, radio and in print media, in order to deter asylum seekers from fleeing to the European Union.

Lastly, in addition to web activity, smartphone communication is also being monitored more closely. Once a journey has begun, these devices are often the sole means of communication for refugees (along with internet cafes). When searching for those who facilitated their journey, migrants’ telephones are occasionally confiscated and the last numbers dialled are analysed – with this soon to be introduced in Germany, too. A Europol department in Austria has reported 25 such international proceedings, in which 697 instances of mobile phone analysis were carried out. The findings were said to result in 185 arrests.

Translation by German Bundestag

Andrej Hunko, MdB 2017