People smugglers using social media sites to pose as “travel agents” for desperate migrants are being targeted by UK experts, Theresa May told fellow EU leaders.
The Prime Minister said concerted action across the European Union is needed because of the international nature of the online problem as she pressed for action to stop traffickers using sites such as Facebook to reach victims.
At a meeting in Salzburg she said that the UK will continue to be fully committed to working with them on the “generational challenge” of migration after Brexit.
Police and security officials believe the traffickers’ adverts are presented as reassuring and create an illusion this is normal travel – rather than the reality of being packed onto a dangerous rib or a small boat without safety jackets.
One page even offered discounts for children, a UK source said.
In the last year, UK law enforcement agencies have referred 539 social media pages advertising people smuggling services for closure by Europol.
But at a working dinner with EU counterparts, Mrs May explained online platforms had “no respect for borders”, UK officials said, and unless the countries acted together traffickers would simply “exploit our weakest link”.
Mrs May offered to share expertise and put the UK in the lead of a joint effort to work with social media platforms to prevent traffickers using their websites.
The Prime Minister also suggested that the approach used to tackle extremist propaganda online should be employed to target the gangs behind people trafficking.
This includes building on existing work with social media firms and Europol’s Internet Referral Unit to take down the exploitative adverts straight away, and seeking to change the behaviour of would-be illegal migrants whose lives could be in danger.
European Council president Donald Tusk urged leaders at the gathering to stop the “blame game” about the migration crisis and hit out at populist politicians seeking to exploit the issue.
“Despite the aggressive rhetoric, things are moving in the right direction,” he said, with the number of irregular migrants down from almost two million in 2015 to fewer than 100,000 this year.
“So, instead of taking political advantage of the situation, we should focus on what works and just get on with it.
“We can no longer be divided into those who want to solve the problem of illegal migrant flows, and those who want to use it for political gain.”