This screengrab shows TikTok accounts run by Gernal Musa. While videos are currently being posted on only two accounts, all three are still present and accessible on the platform.

The ‘game’ of human trafficking on social networks

In the absence of strict checks, agents freely advertise services to "attract customers" via TikTok, YouTube and Facebook.
Published July 9, 2023

“Great game of Baba Haji. [Our] group has reached Italy non-stop. The game is direct. We reached Italy in 8 to 9 hours … The trip was great and so is the game,” said a man with his smartphone’s selfie camera turned on as he attested to the “quality service” of a human trafficker who transported him illegally from Romania.

He made the video while the rest of his group members, around 10 in total, disembarked from a van. The 16-second-long clip posted on April 30 has over two million views and 17,000 likes.

This was one of the 53 videos posted by the account @buttgujratwale. The account, apparently active since April, has over 19,000 followers and 164,000 likes on its videos.

The account, like several others, is operated by a human trafficker active on TikTok. While most traffickers keep their dealings covert, some have ventured to exploit the limitless reach of social media.

They use these platforms to advertise their services to potential clients who are contemplating taking these perilous journeys. The videos work as a testimonial to their “foolproof services”.

In absence of strict checks, agents freely advertise services, ‘attract customers’ via TikTok, YouTube, etc

These traffickers move people illeg­ally across Europe and then put them on camera to say how hassle-free the journey was. These reviews convince more people who then contact the trafficker.

Apparently, their marketing is quite effective. The video mentioned above has 408 comments, many of them asking for more details about the journey and the cost.

The administrators of these accounts direct inquisitive customers to TikTok’s inbox or ask them to contact the WhatsApp number present in their bio.

‘The game’

In all of these videos, people in front of cameras tell how effective and conv­e­nient the concerned trafficker’s game is.

‘Game’ is a term used to describe illegal border crossings and the mode of transportation used for it, explained one trafficker whom Dawn contacted on their WhatsApp number. The different types of games can be via truck, taxi or van, all with varying rates.

“The taxi game from Turkiye to Romania will cost 3,500 euros,” said the trafficker. The amount comes to over Rs1.08 million.

These traffickers who post videos on TikTok only show border crossings within Europe. “We don’t offer service from Pakistan. Only from Europe or Turkiye,” another trafficker told Dawn.

Most of these accounts move people from Turkiye or Greece to Italy, Serbia, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal and France. Those who avail the services of these traffickers travel from Pakistan to Turkiye via a plane or take the treacherous land route through Iran and onwards to Greece.

Throughout the route, the migrants are accompanied by a ‘dunker’, a subordinate of the agent, said Tahir who narrated the story of his dunki from Pakistan to Greece on the YouTube channel of a vlogger, Gulfam Ali.

These dunkers change in every country and each one has to ensure that all migrants are handed over to the dunker waiting at the neighbouring country’s border crossing, according to Tahir who paid 2,200 euros to reach Greece from Turkiye.

He walked miles on foot, swam through lakes and got crammed in a taxi with six other people during the journey to Greece. After spending 1.5 years in the country working on farms, he was disillusioned with low pay and the improbability of getting any formal documents to prolong his stay.

Tahir then decided to do another dunki to Italy, where he’d have better prospects of fulfilling legal requirements and finding a well-paying job. He crossed into Albania, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia to enter Italy in 2022.

Italy ‘the preferred destination’

Tahir is not alone who chose Italy over other European countries. Our analysis showed Italy is the preferred destination for many who view videos posted on the traffickers’ accounts.

Most comments under these videos seek details about the journey to the south European nation. That’s why the majority of videos posted by these traffickers are about journeys from Turkiye to Italy or Romania to Italy.

An analysis by Dawn showed there are 228 videos with #RomaniatoItaly posted from August 2021 to June 2023 posted by 68 accounts, most of which do not exist anymore. These videos have around 13.5 million views.

The second hashtag #TurkeytoItaly had 381 videos between 2020 and 2023, with over 35.37m views.These accounts are operating on social media platforms despite strict community guidelines.

The content posted here is in clear violation of these rules as it glorifies criminal activities and endangers the victims’ life.

Cross-platform presence

While most of these accounts exist only on TikTok, some also have a presence on Facebook and YouTube.

One of them is ‘Gernal Musa’. Their YouTube account, active since 2020, had over 1,600 followers and 200 videos, the latest one posted on June 24.

According to the analytics, these videos have been viewed 196,825 times. The account was active till June 29 when Dawn contacted YouTube for their version. Since then, it has been suspended.

The ‘Gernal’ also operates two Facebook groups with over 62,700 and 16,200 members. These groups are public — open for anyone to join — and mostly feature visa queries posted by members. They are responded to by the administrators or other agents who offer similar services.

TikTok’s guidelines about ‘Violent Behaviors and Criminal Activities’ state: “We do not allow any violent threats, incitement to violence, or promotion of criminal activities that may harm people, animals, or property.”

When contacted by Dawn, both TikTok and YouTube spokespersons said their platforms have a “zero tolerance policy” for this type of content.

While their response didn’t provide any information about specific actions taken against the accounts of human traffickers, they accepted that these videos were a violation of their Community Guidelines.

They both cited the complexity of monitoring the platform given the overwhelming amount of content posted, adding that a combination of humans and technology has been deployed to remove harmful content.

“We use a combination of people and technology to protect our community and work closely with Pakistani authorities and law enforcement agencies in this area to further bolster our defences,” the TikTok spokesperson said in a statement to Dawn.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority told Dawn it has so far blocked 25 URLs of social media platforms, 10 websites, six email addresses and reported 146 accounts to WhatsApp, on complaints of illegal advertisement and recruitment of workforce.

The telecommunication regular said it has been empowered under Section 37(1) of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, to “remove or block” online content, and it will continue to remove or block content accounts related to human trafficking on receipt of complaints from stakeholders.

The Federal Investigation Agency’s Cyber Crime Wing has also reported such accounts to social media platforms in the past which were subsequently taken down, the agency officials told Dawn.

However, the agency faces several challenges in tackling such social media accounts.

First, they say victims usually do not contact traffickers through WhatsApp numbers mentioned on these accounts. This business is based on trust and traffickers are usually referred to the victims by those people who had previously availed their services. Therefore, no complaints have been received against these trafficker’s social media accounts, the FIA official added.

Secondly, the official said most of these accounts were operating from outside of Pakistan thus agency can’t act against them by itself and can only report to the platform.

While the contact numbers mentioned on most of these accounts are based out of Pakistan, some accounts and Facebook groups have mentioned their location within the country as well.

The official added that even when such accounts were suspended, new accounts crop up almost immediately. “So it a process that keeps going on.”

Outsmarting the platforms

Managing multiple accounts is one of the tricks these traffickers deploy to evade action from the platforms. These accounts are managed simultaneously and users are asked to follow new accounts if one of them is banned.

For example, General Musa has been operating four different accounts on TikTok. The account @gernalmusa123 was banned, so users were asked to switch to a new account @gernalmusa302 in May.

Within one month, the account got 1,920 followers and around 14,000 likes on 57 videos. In one of the videos on June 20, viewers were asked to follow a new account @gernalmusa008. On June 30, the viewers were asked to follow another account @gernalmusa1122.

However this time, instead of creating a new account, the administrator apparently bought an account which already had over 34,000 followers. The account’s username was modified and the videos of illegal border trafficking started to appear on June 26.

Modifying existing accounts appears to be a trick to circumvent TikTok’s restriction. Once a user is flagged for violating Community Guidelines and their account is suspended, they are barred from creating another account using the same credentials — email address or mobile number.

The trade of accounts is fairly easy as such they are openly sold on social media platforms where the price is determined based on the follower count.

Even after the sinking of a migrant boat last month in which hundreds of Pakistanis were killed attempting to play a similar ‘game’, there is no let-off in the content being uploaded on these social media accounts. More and more people are still seeking details about how to illegally cross into Europe.

Malik Asad in Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2023

Header Image: This screengrab shows TikTok accounts run by Gernal Musa. While videos are currently being posted on only two accounts, all three are still present and accessible on the platform.