Facebook has found itself in the spotlight for allegedly providing a “key coordination hub” for human smugglers enticing people to the Poland-Belarus border, creating an increasingly dangerous situation for those trapped in the area, according to research and media reports.
The EU has accused Belarus of enticing thousands of migrants to the Polish border with the promise of an easy crossing, described by the Commission as a “misuse of people”, in response to sanctions imposed on Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
Concern is growing over the safety of those stranded in the region as many remain trapped between the two countries in worsening conditions.
Research by analytics firm Semantic Visions has found that social media platforms are facilitating the smuggling of people from Belarus to the EU by allowing smugglers to openly advertise their services and coordinate their activity online.
The research by Semantic Visions found that Facebook was the leading platform when it came to the sharing of information about the route between Belarus and the EU, with many groups focused on the topic having been set up and gaining thousands of new members in a matter of months.
Across the platform, smugglers were found to be advertising access to the route, often in conjunction with travel agencies around the world. The contact details of smugglers, along with information about how to obtain Belarusian visas, for instance, were also being openly shared.
Recent reporting by the New York Times detailed how misinformation on Facebook has resulted in people travelling to the border and, upon finding crossings closed, becoming trapped, prevented from entering Poland but also stopped from returning by Belarusian authorities.
The border zone is the focus of increasing humanitarian concern amid reports of people stranded in freezing conditions with no access to food or shelter. At least a dozen people are known to have died since the crisis began.
At the time of the report’s publication this week, Semantic Visions said online activity related to the Belarus-EU route had not significantly decreased across social media platforms. “Despite the scenes of chaos and tragedy at the Belarusian-Polish border”, the report says, “offers for Belarusian visas and smuggling continue to circulate.”
A spokesperson for Meta, the company that owns Facebook, told EURACTIV that “people smuggling across international borders is illegal and ads, posts, pages or groups that provide, facilitate or coordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook. We remove this content as soon as we become aware of it – regardless of who posts the content.”
Worsening the availability of reliable information about the situation in the border zone is the absence of journalists in the area. The media have been unable to access Poland’s border zone since the introduction of a state of emergency in early September.
A Polish border guard told EURACTIV that the access restrictions were standard practice under state of emergency legislation and would also apply in cases such as natural disasters.
Critics, however, have said that the law, which was renewed at the start of November, is being used to avoid scrutiny of the authorities’ actions in the region. New legislation adopted last week by the Sejm, the Polish parliament’s lower house, seeks to extend the powers afforded by the state of emergency, including the access ban, beyond their statutory end.
In a statement released last week, Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights, called for the media and humanitarian workers to be allowed access to the border, saying that the ban is “undermining freedom of expression and information and limiting much-needed transparency and accountability”.
Speaking on a panel on media and democracy at a conference hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee in Lisbon last week, Andrzej Stankiewicz, deputy editor of Polish news site ONET.pl, said the ban was an attempt to prevent journalists from conveying information that would contradict the government’s messaging around the crisis.
The official line, he said, is clearly anti-migrant, meaning that allowing the media to access the area and show the human side of the situation would be a “political risk for the government”.
He added that the government has also sought to use the crisis to paint journalists as an “enemy”, sympathetic either to Lukashenko or to the EU, but as being against Poland.
The responsibility for resolving the situation shouldn’t rest solely with Poland, however, said Mijatović. “This is a European issue which requires a human rights-centred response based on solidarity and European values and standards”.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]