The Internet Referral Unit in The Hague also monitors social media for the purpose of prosecuting people who help refugees. However, the removal of content is not obligatory for providers.
The EU police agency has reported at least 455 accounts on social media “promoting illegal immigration services from Belarus to Europe” to internet companies for deletion. The information comes from a Europol press release from December last year and can now also be found in the current annual report of the Europol-based Centre against Migrant Smuggling (EMSC). The extent to which companies have complied with the reports is not known; Europol gives the number as “many”. Their compliance remains voluntary, even after the transposition deadline of the EU regulation on combating the spread of terrorist content online starts on 7 June.
The deletion requests related to fleeing via Belarus were made in cooperation with Europol’s Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) in The Hague, which is based at the anti-terrorism centre there. Shortly afterwards, EU governments agreed to extend its remit to include prohibited support for irregular migration. However, reports on “terrorism” continue to make up the majority of the content objected to by Europol.
Europol wants to expand internet measures
The police agency does not differentiate in its reports whether the deletion requests were issued for entire accounts in social media or only specific content. However, it is likely that a considerable number of accounts were affected, because according to Europol, these accounts also advertised the sale of fake identity documents, passports or visas.
According to the report, law enforcement agencies from Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Poland were involved in the operation described by Europol. Which German authorities are involved remains open; the Federal Police is responsible for border surveillance and control, “people smuggling” is considered organised crime and is also prosecuted by the Federal Criminal Police Office.
Europol wants to expand its measures this year, the annual report says. Led by Poland, the agency is also involved in a EMPACT joint police project on eastern land, air and sea borders. Several police agencies, including from Germany, want to use it to break up groups that smuggle refugees via Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia to north-eastern and western Europe. According to the EMSC annual report, Europol is also looking at ways to cooperate with the Maritime Safety Agency and the newly established EU Asylum Agency for this purpose.
“Warn others not to embark on a journey”
Social media had played a key role in fuelling demand for smuggling services via Belarus “stimulating demand for the services of migrant smugglers and raising unrealistic expectations about the chances of entry into the EU”, according to a EU Commission communication. As a “logistical tool”, the platforms are also used by smugglers for communication among refugees in Belarus. Europol should therefore encourage providers to “to play a part in disrupting communication”.
Belarus launched a “idespread disinformation campaign to discredit the EU’s international reputation” in the summer and portray the EU as hostile to refugees, explains the Commission. According to the Commission, this narrative must be responded to. The European External Action Service (EEAS) has been active for some time in various countries of origin of refugees with “information and awareness raising campaigns” with a similar aim. On the EU-funded platform “InfoMigrants”, refugees themselves are supposed to write entries to “to warn others not to embark on a journey and making clear that there is no guarantee of asylum”.