Police target 455 social media accounts exploiting migrants fleeing to Europe

The profiles were used to offer services supplying fake documents and organising transport for migrants

A Polish soldier secures the Polish-Belarusian border near Polowce village, eastern Poland. EPA

Police forces from six countries have targeted hundreds of social media accounts involved in the people smuggling trade from Belarus.

Officers from the Baltic states, Finland, Poland and Germany identified 455 accounts promoting the sale of counterfeit identity documents and for smuggling services. The accounts have been flagged with social media companies to take down, said the European policing organisation Europol.

Thousands of migrants – many from Iraq and Syria – have tried to use Belarus this year as a jumping-off point to reach Europe after securing month-long visas to the country.

European governments say they have been exploited by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko and a network of people smugglers and agents to try to stoke a crisis in the EU.

Migrants were able to reach Belarus by plane after it issued visas in what European governments describe as a tactic in a hybrid war to punish the EU for imposing sanctions on Belarus after allegedly rigged elections last year that returned Mr Lukashenko for a sixth term.

The EU has backed Poland’s robust approach to policing its eastern border with Belarus which has included pushing back migrants into Belarus despite them claiming asylum, according to rights groups and migrants.

The route from Belarus was “heavily advertised” on messaging and social platforms, said Europol which co-ordinated the attempted takedown. “The misuse of these online platforms by facilitators led to a large increase of departures and irregular border crossings,” it said.

It did not say how many of the 455 sites had been taken down. Smugglers have used Facebook accounts and the encrypted messaging system Telegram to profit from the desperation of migrants to reach Europe.

Thousands gathered at the border in November as Poland flooded the area with military and border officials to stop migrants breaking through a border fence.

Those that made it into Poland were faced with a long walk in freezing conditions through the forests in Poland’s east before being collected by smugglers in vehicles.

Soldiers manned checkpoints on the roads from the borders where they stopped cars to check they were not carrying migrants.

The numbers attempting to cross the border has eased in recent weeks as the death toll mounts in the harsh conditions.

At least a dozen people have died during the attempts to cross into EU-member Poland with many wading through freezing waters at the border.

But Lithuania on Monday warned that more people could attempt to cross in the coming days as Belarus prepares to close a warehouse that had been a home for thousands of migrants near the border with Poland.

Agne Bilotaite, the Interior Minister of Lithuania, which also borders Belarus, said up to 4,000 migrants could be in Belarus.

“We have received information about Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko order to clear out illegal migrants from the warehouse at Bruzgi border crossing and Minsk, so there will be attempts soon to push these migrants into Lithuania, Poland and Latvia," she said.

Updated: December 21st 2021, 9:21 AM