People smugglers in North Africa are using Facebook and other social media to recruit clients from across the Middle East and Africa as they turn the business of sending desperate refugees across the Mediterranean into a multi-billion pound operation, The Telegraph reported.
Encouraged by the huge profits to be made, traffickers have sent a record 150,000 refugees on boats to Italy so far this year, with fears that next year the number will be matched or even surpassed.
Thousands have died as their often unseaworthy and overloaded boats got into difficulties and sank. Last week, 17 people trying to make the crossing were found frozen to death on three boats spotted by the Italian navy.
Eight children including twins were among 29 migrants feared to have drowned in a separate incident when their boat from Morocco was hit by strong waves in a storm off the coast of Spain.
The smugglers have established a human trafficking network that extends deep into the Sahara, where Libyan militias charge refugees for safe passage through the desert.