Passport---Dealing with Lost, Forged & Fake Ones
Passport Loss---A Traumatic Experience
Half the joy of visiting a foreign land is marred by the ever looming fear of losing one's passport while there. For without it one is a persona non grata. One cannot board a flight to one’s own country, cannot apply for foreign exchange or even book a hotel room.
In her article captioned ‘Five Steps When You’ve Lost Your Passport’, Robin Mc Clure describes the unenviable position of a person who discovers his or her passport is missing. “It’s your worst nightmare. You’re standing in the line waiting to check your bag and board the plane home after a stay in a foreign country. When you reach for your passport it’s not there…Dread floods through you…It happens to hundreds of travelers every year”.
Dealing with It
She, however, advises people not to panic in such a situation and outlines five steps leading to the issue of a temporary passport. Among these are going to the police for lodging a complaint and getting a copy of it, and then contacting the Embassy or the Consulate with the police report. Also required would be a copy of the lost passport or at least its particulars, another ID proof, photos of yourself and certain personal details. Despite this advice, the author admits that “Losing a passport can be a traumatic experience, so do anything you can to prevent it from happening”.
(Article dated January 31, 2011 appearing on the website www.theexpeditioner.com/2011/01/31/ ).
This is because, in actual practice, the provisions for issue of a temporary or emergency passport do not work as fast or as smoothly as one might wish. The Times of India, in an article, mentions that issue of such a passport can take anything up to two weeks because of various checks and procedures involved. Moreover, Embassies and Consulates remain closed on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as on Public Holidays, which can entail further delay. Indifference or suspicion on the part of the concerned authorities can add to one’s woes, which would be multiplied if a photocopy of the lost passport (or passport details) and alternative photo IDs are not available with the applicant.
Woman dies after loss of passport at Doha airport
An extreme example of callousness on the part of the concerned authorities, with disastrous consequences, is that of a traumatized Indian housemaid who was stranded in a transit lounge of Muscat airport for five days after losing her passport at the Doha airport, and died on October 8, 2010 on way to hospital. The passenger, a 40-year old woman, was traveling from Muscat to Chennai via Doha by Qatar Airways but lost her passport while in transit at the Doha airport. When her passport was not found, she was sent back to the port of origin, i.e. Muscat. In doing this, the airlines claimed to have followed the prescribed procedure. However, in the absence of the passport, the housemaid, who had surrendered her Oman residence visa while returning home, was not allowed to re-enter Muscat by Oman’s immigration authorities. The airlines claimed to have informed the Indian Embassy officials in this regard. “We were given repeated assurances that the embassy officials would come and visit the stranded passenger but there was no visit even after requests from the airport police”. Sometime afterwards, the stranded passenger began to get delusional and died in the ambulance on way to hospital. A senior doctor at the government hospital is said to have opined that it could have been a case of cardiac arrest resulting from severe mental trauma. The Indian Ambassador Anil Wadhwa is reported to have said: “It is sad that procedural delay delayed help for the stranded passenger”. (Gulf News, October 10, 2010). However, a human life had been lost because of the delays and apathy.
French airport police detain 6-year-old girl in ID crackdown
If you believe that passport harassments begin only when you lose the passport, here is a case that may set you thinking. As per a news item dated June 12, 2015, a 6-year-old Paris-born girl was detained at Charles de Gaulle airport after arriving from Cameroon. She was traveling as an unaccompanied minor, carrying all necessary documents, and her mother was waiting for her at the Paris airport. Police thought the girl’s passport photo didn’t resemble her, and suspected a fake. The girl was held in a special police day care for three days before she appeared before a judge who asked her to identify her mother seated across the courtroom. The judge eventually ordered her release into her mother’s arms. The incident is reported to have caused extensive indignation.
Fake and Forged Passports
Whereas law-abiding passengers have to put up with hassles as well as the gnawing fear of passport loss, cases of fake or forged passports being used by undesirable elements, to further their agendas, are not uncommon.
Megan Papeoli, in a blog dated March 24, 2015 (www.blogs.scientificamerican.com/ ), poses the question: “How Hard Is It to Catch a Fake Passport?” She opines that “Detecting fake IDs is surprisingly difficult, especially when they rarely occur”. She enumerates some of the main difficulties in the checking of IDs of airport security. One is the time pressure when faced with a long queue which has to be kept moving. Second is the variety of countries and races to which the passengers belong, as well as the fact that a person’s photo and his or her current appearance may not match. “Most importantly, only a very rare person would attempt to board an airline with a false ID, and the consequences of missing that person can be dire. With the recent disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and reports that two men boarded the plane using stolen passports, attention has become focused on this potential security loophole”. The writer mentions that in many airports, systems are in place to prevent individuals with stolen IDs from passing through security, including scanning passengers’ passports against the Interpol database of known missing documents. However, apart from the fact that this database may not be exhaustive, the fact remains that this type of check is often not exercised, perhaps because security personnel feel confident about matching faces with photographs, although this ability has been shown to be highly fallible. Interpol estimates that although 3.1 billion people traveled by airplanes in 2013, in about 1 billion cases the passports were not scanned against the database of missing or stolen passports.
The problem of fake or forged passports is worldwide and widespread, as the following examples suggest.
According to figures submitted to Parliament, the number of such cases detected in India during the three years beginning 2009 were as follows:
These numbers may not tell the real story, as there may be a large number of cases going undetected.
As per a report dated July 10, 2013, appearing in GulfNews.com, the Dubai police uncovered 144 cases of passport forgery in the first six months of 2013. Likewise, police registered 105 cases of the forgery or illegal changing of Czech passports in the past 3 years and found out that many of them were probably sold by their holders to the criminal underworld and resold mainly to African and Middle East clients. The passports were either forged or ones in which only the first page with a photo was changed. Most of the time, such counterfeit passports are used by people in search of greener pastures for employment or by tourists. The situation becomes alarming when they get into the hands of criminals or terrorists trying to flee from one country to another, or attempting to conceal their real identity or to purchase weapons or to open fraudulent bank accounts. Cases of this type are not too rare.
Criminal Use of Fake Passports
It has been reported on September 11, 2015 that of late Delhi has become a safe transit point for migrants. Agents prepare fake passports, visas and employment stickers of Nepal and send young women abroad for human trafficking. “Since Nepali passports are handwritten, it becomes difficult and almost impossible for airport authorities to cross check their genuineness”. Another similar report informs: “Fiji Passports Easily Forged by Human Traffickers”. (Fiji Times, December 1, 2009).
Here is another headline: “Thailand grapples with massive fake passport racket”. The news report says: “Thai authorities struggle to track thousands of lost or stolen passports each year. Some are known to be sold on through syndicates to drug traffickers. Others are suspected to have ended up in the hands of Islamist militants.
Sometimes documents are sold by their owners to cover travel costs…The passports may be altered, for example, with a new photograph, but sometimes the fraudulent user hopes to pass as the real owner”. (Reuters, March 10, 2014).
A news report dated March 26, 2012 tells us that underworld don Dawood Ibrahim had 20 fake passports with him when he fled India in the nineties. “The simplicity with which fake passports can be acquired is cited as one of the reasons for gangsters’ ability to sink across borders and elude the police”. One of the methods used for getting hold of bogus passports is to cut out the original photograph of a stolen passport and replace it with the don’s. Another favorite modus operandi is to get a genuine passport using fake documents. Gangster Abu Salem got three passports from India while he was at large in the Middle East and Europe. The documents were in three different names not his own.
Passport to Terror
A report dated September 17, 2015 in ‘Mail Online’ reveals the disturbing fact that ISIS fighters are using forged passports and other documents to travel to Europe to start terror sleeper cells or live under false names free of past crimes. The blank documents employed for forging the passports are genuine, having been stolen from government offices by militias.
The Way Out
Thus, under the present system of passports, there hovers over the heads of law-abiding travelers the fear of losing their passports, and being tormented because of that, or even otherwise. At the same time, fake and forged passports are being freely used not only by those in search of asylum or employment overseas, but also by criminals and terrorists.
The way out of this dismal scenario is to carry globalization and digitization to their logical conclusion. This would imply processing and issue of all passports, in all nations of the world, through electronic means. Besides the holder's recent photograph and signatures, it would also carry other marks of identification, such as finger and thumb impressions or iris recognition parameters. The passport would be stored in a computerized database, and all such national or regional databases would find place in a global database. This global database would be accessible to the governments of all countries. Even older passports can be digitized and included in this global database.
Now if a person loses his passport while in a foreign country, all he has to do is to approach the concerned authorities, who will readily retrieve it from the global database. The identity of the person can easily be verified with the help of his recorded photograph, signatures, thumb impressions, etc., and the duplicate passport can then be authenticated and issued to him. What a relief! Incidents such as that relating to the little French girl, recounted above, could be avoided, since, apart from the photograph, biometric data would be available for purposes of identification.
Cases of doubtful or fake passports can also be detected more readily, because such passports would not appear in the global database. Even if the person has forged a passport with some recorded name and other details, or is using a stolen passport with the first page or photo altered, the identification marks included in the original passport will give him away.
But it is not only people with fake passports who will face the music. The proposed system would make it difficult for people even with genuine passports to flee after committing a crime or an act of terror. For, in the global database, a flag can be put against the passports of such persons in regard to their unlawful activities. Impounding or cancellation of passports, because of undesirable activities, would become more thorough and complete, as the cancellation would be effected in the global database and not merely in the records of the issuing country.
To bring about a reform so radical, and of such magnitude, would no doubt not be an easy task, especially since lakhs of non-digital passports are already in use. Moreover, implementation of the proposed system pre-supposes the cooperation of about 196 countries now in existence, which again is a remote possibility. Yet a beginning can be made by a group of pioneering nations. Older passports can gradually be modified and brought within the purview of the scheme. As the advantages of the new system become apparent, more and more countries would join, true to the adage, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
© 2015 Sunil Mathur