The New York Times published a report on Monday, Nov. 22, focusing on the role of Facebook content in stoking and agitating the crisis of refugees stranded at the Belarus-Poland border and waiting to reach Europe to seek asylum.
The report included refugee testimonies of videos on the platform claiming that Poland was about to open its borders, and had invited asylum seekers who wanted to enter the European Union to gather at a certain point on the border with Belarus.
This was an example of how some of the content posted on Facebook has aggravated the situation of migrants and refugees stranded in Belarus at the closed border with Poland. The European Union has supported Poland’s tight border measures denying refugees transit to Western European countries. They also blamed Belarus for the crisis, as the country granted tourist visas to thousands of Iraqis.
One of the most important factors that contributed to the exploitation of people desperate to seek asylum, the report stated, was empty promises of “profiteers and charlatans” active on Facebook. These profiteers have persuaded people to travel and seek asylum, offering to smuggle them across the border in exchange for large sums of money. Fake news on Facebook “poured mud on our heads and destroyed our lives,” said Mr. Faraj, a refugee who was taken with 2,000 people to a detention center for migrants on the Belarus-Poland border.
Ms. Monika Richter is the head of research and analysis at Semantic Visions, a company that monitors social media activity related to immigration and refugee issues. She stated that there has been some activity on Facebook in Arabic and Kurdish regarding immigration since last July. "Facebook exacerbated this humanitarian crisis, and now you have all these people who were brought over and clearly misled and ripped off," she added.
Remarkably, the smugglers shared their phone numbers on Facebook and advertised their “services” in posts on the social media network. In one, a smuggler announced “daily trips from Minsk to Germany with only a 20 km walking distance.” Another smuggler told that he was organizing trips from Belarus to Germany via Poland that would take eight to 15 hours, adding to his post: “Don't call if you’re afraid.”
Despite migrants’ bitter experience with fake news on Facebook, many in detention centers reacted to posts saying that it was possible to reach Europe for anyone paying $7,000 to a guide that allegedly knew a route between Belarus and Poland.
With tourism in Belarus boosted, migrants started to travel to the country seeking a transit to Europe. Travel companies in Iraqi Kurdistan began to announce on Facebook groups and other platforms to help travelers with tourist visas. Smugglers took advantage of that situation to promote Belarus as a back door leading to the heart of Europe.
In a report sent to European Union officials, Semantic Vision concluded that social media platforms, especially Facebook, have turned into a “de facto market” for human smuggling to the EU.
Facebook, which changed its official name to Meta, announced that it bans content facilitating or promoting human smuggling. It has assigned monitoring teams to track posts related to the migrant crisis. The company stressed that it is working with legal bodies and NGOs to counter the flow of fake news related to migration. However, it is yet to be clear what steps the company has taken in this regard.
Translated by: Ahmed N. A. Almassri