The two passengers who managed to board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 with stolen passports have brought to light the loopholes in immigration checks as well as the booming trade in fake credentials. We look at some facts and figures behind stolen passports.
1. Number of missing or stolen passports
More than 40 million travel documents have been reported lost or stolen by 167 countries, according to Interpol's Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database.
2. Database for fake passports
Interpol's database was set up in 2002 because Interpol and its member countries saw a link between terrorist activities and the use of lost or stolen travel documents. Convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef, who helped build the bomb which killed six people in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, travelled to the United States on a stolen Iraqi passport. Milorad Ulemek, who assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Dindic and former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic in 2003 , crossed 27 borders with a missing passport before he was caught.
3. Few checks carried out
While all 190 member countries can access the database to countercheck travel documents, "only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen documents are not boarding international flights", according to Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble. The United States is the biggest user, with 250 million annual checks. The United Kingdom follows with 120 million and the United Arab Emirates with 50 million. Despite this, passengers boarded planes more than a billion times last year without being checked against the database.
4. Thailand the hub
Thailand is a centre for fake passports because of its booming tourist industry, which attracts a large pool of European, American and Australian travellers. According to a 2012 report in the Bangkok expatriate magazine The Big Chilli, the Department of Special Investigation created the Transnational Crime Intelligence Operation Centre (TCIC) specifically to target gangs which forge and/or steal travel documents. The centre's head, Tinawut Slilapa, estimated that there were about 20 foreign gangs specialising in passport fraud. Reuters reported that according to Thailand's ministry of foreign affairs, more than 60,000 passports, both Thai and foreign, were reported missing or stolen in Thailand between January 2012 and June 2013.
5. Price of fake passports
Tinawut told The Big Chilli that a passport in good condition, with three to five years left before its expiration date, can sell for US$1,500 to $3,000. There are extra charges for other changes, such as amending the photographs or adding visa stamps and stickers. Syndicates now have so many passports in their possession they can wait for a client who actually resembles the passport holder, and thus minimise changes to the document and ensure the fake passport holder has a better chance of clearing checks.
6. Crime syndicates
Terrorists are not the only ones relying on fake and/or stolen passports. Organised crime syndicates, drug smugglers and human traffickers also use fake papers to travel. In September 2013, Malaysian authorities arrested Seyed Ramin Miraziz Paknejad, 45, in Kuala Lumpur. He had fled Thailand where he was arrested in June 2012 for providing counterfeit travel documents to terrorists who carried out bombings in the country. According to a report in the New Straits Times, he was also suspected of providing more than 3,000 fake documents and responsible for trafficking thousands of people from different countries through the Middle East, Europe, Australia and Canada.
*sources: Associated Press, Reuters, www.interpol.int, New Straits Times
— ONG SOR FERN
ANN/ The Straits Times