People smugglers who offer to illegally transport people into Europe are advertising their services openly on Facebook, researchers have found.
Picture and video testimonials from successful migrants are posted on social media as smuggling operations compete to be seen as the safest way to enter Europe.
Researchers are using this information to analyse the networks behind people smuggling operations in the Mediterranean.
Syrian communities displaced by the civil war are especially close users of Facebook. The country had a functional education system before the war and Syrian migrants have on average a higher level of education and digital literacy.
A team led by Paolo Campana, an expert in criminal networks at the University of Cambridge, has pored over a vast range of information to investigate how migrants choose their smugglers and border crossings.
“As everywhere, education matters,” Dr Campana said.
“Accessing and evaluating information through channels such as Facebook could mean the difference between life and death.”
More than 885,000 illegal border crossings took place along the East Mediterranean route in 2015 – a 1,641% increase on 2014.
Dr Campana did not know how many of these transactions would have been negotiated on the internet, but told Sky News social media must have played a major role.
The smugglers’ focus on reputation is a product of smuggling humans into Europe being a “quintessential free market”, according to Dr Campana.
Unlike people trafficking, the smugglers’ commodity is not the people that they control but the actual crossing of borders.
Regional instability to the south and east of the Mediterranean has caused demand for this commodity to rapidly increase in recent years.
Dr Campana described the range of morals and ethics among smugglers: “Some smugglers cheat, some overcharge, some care about safety, some don’t care who lives or dies.”
The networks that drive people smuggling are very different from many others because of its free market environment.
Unlike in typical areas of large-enterprise crime, there are no monopolies when it comes to smuggling networks.
Dr Campana’s research shows that the networks are heavily fragmented.
Individual smuggling operations “are stunted and localised” said Dr Campana, with nobody in control of all stages of the journey.
“Smugglers operate as independent actors in various stages of an overall journey, whether it’s a sea or a desert crossing, or temporary city accommodation, or car trips over European borders.
“While some smuggling groups make arrangements with each other, there seem to be no exclusivity agreements and – despite the localisation of smuggling networks – very little territorial control,” said Dr Campana.
The importance of networks and reputations in the free market of smugglers can been seen in the evidence that Dr Campana had collected.
One recording of a wiretapped telephone call revealed how one people smuggler asked another how many of the 366 asylum seekers who had died when an overcrowded boat caught fire near the Italian island of Lampedusa were his.
The wiretap records one of the smugglers berating the other for his lapse safety.
The other smuggler later began to personally notify the families of the dead and pay out $5,000 (£3,778) in compensation to salvage his reputation.
“This is a market driven by exponential demand, and it is that demand which should be targeted,” said Dr Campana.
“Land-based policies such as refugee resettlement schemes are politically difficult, but might ultimately prove more fruitful in stemming the smuggling tide.”