Passport security worries

The tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has thrown into relief the loopholes and weaknesses of passport scrutiny at many major international airports including those in Thailand and Malaysia.

It has now been revealed that the two men travelling on the stolen passports of an Austrian and an Italian were Iranian nationals. There is no evidence that they were involved in terrorist activities and may well have been economic migrants seeking a brighter future in Europe.

At least one of the stolen passports had biometric features, yet immigration officers in Kuala Lumpur failed to pick up on the fake credentials. Indeed, Malaysia has pioneered technology to attempt to combat passport fraud, yet the Iranian passengers in question managed to board the plane, likely because their documents were not checked against the international data base.

The Pattaya travel agent who booked the tickets for the two said the purchase of the tickets for the imposters had been arranged through an Iranian contact named Ali. One of the reasons for thinking the matter is not related to terrorism is that Ali wanted the cheapest flights to Europe and did not specify any particular airline. Colonel Suphachai Phuikaewkham, Pattaya police chief, confirmed that Ali, thought now to be in Iran, had bought airline tickets for others in the past.

The scale of the problem of passport fraud is immense. Over the years at least 40 million passports have been lost or stolen, and the figure may be much higher as some countries do not report thefts to Interpol. But only a handful of countries worldwide automatically counter-check the passports of departing international travelers with that Interpol data base.

Thailand, with its huge tourist market, is a well-known centre for fake passports. The Thai foreign ministry said that 60,000 passports, Thai and foreign, were reported stolen in a recent six months period. A passport in good condition, with several years before the expiry date, can fetch up to 100,000 baht on the black market with extra charges for photographs, visa stamps, and stickers. There are so many passports in the illegal pool that customers are told to wait whilst a stolen passport with features resembling the new owner turns up; the wait is usually short.

Security experts say that biometric passports must be connected to a database that is up-to-date and properly managed. The problem arises when officials at airports do not scrutinize the documents presented or fail to carry out more detailed checks. Passport fraudsters know that it is much easier to take advantage of the failure of a system rather than to rely on counterfeiting or hacking a document.

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