Social media companies failing to close people-smuggler sites, claims UK

Britiain's National Crime Agency said nearly half of requests this year to take down suspected people smuggling material were rejected by tech firms

French police assist migrants rescued after their makeshift ship encountered difficulties while trying to reach England by crossing the Channel on September 2, 2020 in the French port city of Calais.  / AFP / BERNARD BARRON
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Social media companies, including Facebook and YouTube, have refused nearly 500 requests from British law enforcement to remove online material connected to suspected people smugglers, MPs heard on Thursday.

Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said that it had referred nearly 1,200 pages to social media companies in the first five months of the year as it attempted to tackle the communications of gangs involved in smuggling people to the UK.

The NCA said that 578 pages were closed down but their appeals over 485 others were rejected and police expressed their frustrations that they could not do anything about it.

“We were very certain when we made those referrals that there was a problem with those accounts,” said Robert Jones, a senior official at the NCA. “To see that level of attrition with not all those accounts being closed is challenging for us.”

MPs have launched an inquiry after an unprecedented number of migrants arrived in the UK so far this year, from the northern coast of France in small boats by crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Senior officials told MPs that the majority of those making the journeys across the English Channel would have come into contact with people smugglers along the route from source countries, predominantly in Africa and the Middle East, and may have been passed between gangs as they reached northern Europe.

Mr Jones said social media, encrypted platforms and messaging were effective ways for gangs to trade vulnerable migrants and police had tried to stifle the gangs’ lines of communications.

But their efforts had been hindered by the stance of social media companies and an influx of criminal gangs enticed by the prospect of easy profits after seeing thousands of people successfully leave for the UK in 2020.

The criticism is just the latest headache for social media companies which have been accused by European politicians of failing to do enough to tackle the use of their platforms by terrorists to spread their ideologies and secure funding.

Facebook said on Thursday that it did not allow content that helped the business of smuggling people.

But it said it would allow posts appealing for help to be smuggled, or giving information on how to leave a country illegally. It said the posts might help people escape life-threatening situations.

“People smuggling is illegal and any ads, posts, pages or groups that co-ordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook. We work closely with law enforcement agencies around the world including Europol to identify, remove and report this illegal activity," a Facebook spokesperson said.

YouTube said that migration videos were only banned if they encouraged dangerous or illegal behaviour.

So far this year more than 5,000 people are believed to have illegally crossed the waterway that narrows to 34 kilometres between Britain and France. More than 400 people reached British shores in small boats on Wednesday, a new single-day record.

The MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee were told that 20 per cent of those who claimed asylum were accepted, 10 per cent were rejected and the UK was seeking to send 71 per cent back to other European countries.

The government has pledged to return undocumented non-EU migrants to the European country where they first landed under the terms of a 2013 agreement. These countries are most likely to be Spain, Italy, Greece and Malta.

But Mediterranean countries have long complained that they are bearing an unfair burden of the cost of migrant arrivals because of their geographical position. Attempts to reach agreement over sharing refugee arrivals more equitably around Europe have so far failed, with the continent’s leaders divided over immigration issues.

The 2015 migration crisis led to a rise in nationalist, anti-migration governments in the European Union which campaigned for stronger borders and keeping out migrants.

Officials said increased security at key French coastal transport hubs, the reduction of cross-Channel truck traffic because of Covid-19 restrictions and the calm, warm weather this summer had encouraged more people to make the crossing.

The UK has paid France more than £114 million (Dh533m) since 2015 for improved security measures in an unsuccessful effort to stem the flow of migrant traffic.

The government has in recent weeks sought to blame the French authorities and "activist lawyers" for rising numbers of crossings and difficulties in removing asylum seekers once they arrive in Britain.

But enforcement officials told the committee that the French had prevented 3,000 people from crossing this year, including close to 200 on one day this week. These attempts included one inflatable packed with 63 people, said Dan O'Mahoney, who was appointed by the UK government last month to tackle the problem.