Libyan people traffickers use social media to drum up business

"Maybe one day I come stay with you in London," says Hassan. "London is very beautiful but I love Manchester United." Hassan is enthusiastic and personable, but he would be – he wants my business.

Hassan, 22, who lives in a port town on the Libyan coast, has offered to collect a friend of mine and her seven-year-old daughter from Khartoum, Sudan, transport them to the Mediterranean coast and put them on a boat with 250 other migrants headed for Italy for a total fee of $3,800 (€3,500) – $1,000 for my friend and $500 for her daughter's crossing, the rest for transport from Khartoum. It's a service he advertised openly on a Facebook page which translated from Arabic to English as "Boats to Italy". Facebook took down the page after being notified by Newsweek.

"The trip will last a period of eight hours before reaching Italian waters," it says. "It will take about two hours for an Italian ship to come out." Some Italians leave hate messages on the page while customers ask about the boats and trips.

Hassan even posts a chart to the page detailing the income, residency status and health benefits customers will receive in various European countries. He includes a phone number and asks interested parties to call.

"You have people?" he asks almost instantly. "You have children? How many? No good English, call me on Viber or WhatsApp now. This number."

We switch to the encrypted WhatsApp messenger service, where he asks if I want business. "Business, no problem. You have friends in Africa? No problem. In Libya, no police."

I tell him about my fictional friend and her daughter in Sudan, and say I am fixing their journey to Italy. He becomes excited – "good, good, good!" – and offers $100 commission for every "friend" I bring him.

He says he can arrange a taxi from Sudan for $1,800 (€1,700) per adult, also revealing costed routes from Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, into Libya.

So how dangerous will the journey to Italy be? "No danger. Thank God, all my boats arrived in Italy. My boat is always good," he replies, sending a photo of two expensive satellite phones. "First money and tomorrow go Italy."

I ask what he thinks of migrants drowning at sea attempting to reach Europe. "[They] drown because of the lack of lifejacket and rescue equipment and we provide all this."

Once my "Sudanese girls" have arrived into Libya and the money has been transferred to him by bank account, he says, the women can stay in housing and eat for free, he claims. He is also prepared to waive the $30 it costs for a lifejacket. "$30 is just $30, give free, you are friend of me," he says.

His boats hold "between 220 and 250" people. The captain makes the journey with the migrants, and the boats are discarded when they are picked up by Italian authorities. Each new boat costs around $75,000 (€69,000), but with adult passengers paying $1,000, the profit margin for each "flight", as he calls it, is still high. Boats go "every day", he says.

I ask for further proof that he is for real as my friends in Sudan are trusting me with their lives. After all, anyone can set up a Facebook page. He is hesitant and begins to ask questions.

"Do not be afraid my friend, I am not a thief. Give your name and face." I send a photo and he begins to open up.

"Me and my father work this," he admits, revealing that smuggling is a family business, with his seven brothers also working on the boats for his father. "Yes, a lot of money. We have engaged from 2001. We veterans in this job."

I continue to push for evidence, threatening to take my business to another smuggler in Tripoli. An hour later, a video arrives to my inbox, along with photos of migrants in a house. In the video, Hassan, hiding his face, holds up a piece of cardboard with the day's date and location. He sweeps his car around and pans across the town's port, revealing scores of his family's smuggling boats lined up in rows, and says my name.

Hassan is the real deal but he is doing the bidding of his father, greasing the wheels of the smuggling network on the phone and social media. "This money not for me, all this for my father, I have just $5,000." He says he spends most of his earnings on travel to Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.

We begin to build a rapport, talking about Pro Evolution Soccer, my family, girls in London and whisky. He starts to refer to me as his habibi (love) and says he will visit me in London if we stay friends. Ironically, Hassan wants to follow in the footsteps of the migrants he transports and seek asylum in Europe. "Good life in Europe, Libya bad. Europe no give me visa, I want asylum."

His desire to escape the smuggling business reveals a life of fear working for his father, a smuggling kingpin. I ask why he does not leave. "I can't. My father," Hassan says. A radio silence of 18 hours follows this exchange. Hassan becomes suspicious – he has had another call from an English number and is worried about police and British intelligence. Eventually I come clean and explain that the Sudanese girls do not exist and that I am a journalist.

"Jack, I trust you. Why? I'm angry I trust." His anger quickly turns to thoughts of money. "Listen to me, I know everything, OK? Give me money, I send you picture, send you video, anything. $30,000, give you anything."

Realising I won't pay, Hassan claims he is not really the son of the man he calls father, that his parents both died and he was adopted, raised around the smuggling business. He uncovers an inner torment at what he now calls the "death boats" he helps to send across the Mediterranean.

"I want to help people but I fear. I don't love this work. This job not good. Danger. My father kill me using gun OK?" He admits that he lives with the migrants in the city but will not reveal how many are housed. "Sorry, I can't. [My father will] kill me."

I ask what he knows about the 800 migrants who drowned off the Libyan coast last month in the worst smuggling tragedy the Mediterranean has ever seen."This travel is illegal and I do not like it. I will run away. I know who brought them and [I know] the smuggling and [I know] the city. I know what happened," he says. "[I] can say a lot about the smugglers, but you will die.

"Bye Jack, nice to meet you. I want [to] help but I fear."

Names and details in this article have been changed to protect sources.