x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Who’s sitting in that aircraft seat?

Interpol reckon up to 40 million lost or stolen passports and identity papers are scattered over the world. Yet many countries do not follow the UAE’s lead and make regular checks on Interpol’s database, making it easy for the fake papers to be used globally.

Two of the passengers on the missing Malayasia Airlines flight were travelling on stolen passports – unlike the UAE , many countries do not make regular checks on Interpol’s list. Randi Sokoloff / The National
Two of the passengers on the missing Malayasia Airlines flight were travelling on stolen passports – unlike the UAE , many countries do not make regular checks on Interpol’s list. Randi Sokoloff / The National

The next time you’re on a plane, stand up and look down the rows of passengers. It is entirely possible that at least one of those faces is not the person whose name is on their passport.

Fake or stolen identities are a growing problem for airlines and airports alike. There may be as many as 180,000 incidents every year in which someone using a known fraudulently-obtained passport manages to cross a border. What is truly shocking in these cases is that they could all be stopped.

A single international database lists the details of more than 40 million travel documents that have been reported as stolen or lost. Detecting those travellers using these documents can be done in less than a minute. But in the majority of cases, they pass undetected.

The head of Interpol, the agency that collects information for its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, believes most countries have a dangerous disregard for security measures that could stop people travelling across borders illegally.

Last year its database was searched 800 million times, producing about 60,000 matches. There are more than 3.2 billion journeys taken by air passengers each year. These searches represent just 25 per cent of these.

After confirming that at least two stolen passports were used by passengers on the missing Malaysian Airlines MH 370 Beijing-bound plane, Interpol secretary general Ronald K Noble said on Sunday it was of “grave concern” that these two passengers were allowed to board given that the travel documents they used were listed in the SLTD database.

“If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against Interpol’s database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH 370. We would know that stolen passports were not used by any of the passengers to board that flight.

“For the sake of innocent passengers who go through invasive security measures prior to boarding flights in order to get to their destination safely, I sincerely hope that governments and airlines worldwide will learn from the tragedy of missing flight MH 370 and begin to screen all passengers’ passports prior to allowing them to board flights. Doing so will indeed take us a step closer to ensuring safer travel.”

Yesterday, Mr Noble ended speculation about the two Iranian passport holders who boarded using the stolen Austrian and Italian passports and said Interpol was “inclined to conclude” they were not terrorists.

But while the pair are cleared of any blame, the failings of border security remain.

Interpol’s databases can be searched by authorised users “in a matter of seconds”, the agency says, through its I-24/7 global police communications system. The system is installed in the National Central Bureau of every member state but not in every airport or border crossing.

On its website it calls for all 190 member countries to extend access to the network, which “requires the installation of technical equipment or specialised software”, at the front line.

Interpol has not made public the names of countries that search using its database but some clearly take it more seriously than others. Topping the list of those who performed the most searches last year are the United States, the UK and the UAE. All three countries clearly make access to the names and numbers of reported fraudulent passports a priority at their airports.

Lt Awath Hamad Al Amri, deputy passports officer at Abu Dhabi Airport, confirmed yesterday that the UAE can access the list from places other than the National Central Bureau, but said not all passports of arriving passengers are cross-checked with Interpol. Only when an immigration official suspects something is amiss would the details be run through the SLTD database.

“Everybody goes through two stages. The first stage is as the passenger checks in, it is the responsibility of every airline to check the validity of the passenger’s passport,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the airline to make sure you have a visa, where required, for the country you are travelling to. All this should be checked before giving anyone a ticket to the destination country travelled to.

“The second stage is inside the airport itself at immigration. The officer will check if the person in front of him is the same person as in the photo in the passport, and the basic information appears correct.”

Last year the UAE was responsible for one in every eight searches, making more than 100 million checks, Interpol figures show. The US searched the database more than 238 million times, followed by the UK at 140 million.

Accurate figures for the number of passengers boarding planes each year are difficult to track down and can differ depending on the source.

Figures from the International Air Transport Association — which represents more than 240 airlines and more than 84 per cent of total air traffic — show there were 3.2 billion passenger numbers in 2013, surpassing the 3 billion mark for the first time. It predicts this will increase to 3.3 billion this year.

The European Commission reported that the UK handled 203 million air passengers in 2012, 0.8 per cent up on 2011.

Izabella Cooper, spokesperson for Frontex, which co-ordinates European Union border controls, says 350 million people enter the EU each year by land, sea and air. In 2013, EU border officials detected 9,800 fake or stolen passports, visas and resident permits. That was an increase of 24 per cent on 2012.

Asked how many they did not pick up, she points out: “We don’t know what we don’t know. We only know what we detect.”

Frontex has no powers to make individual governments carry out particular checks, it just co-ordinates and recommends. But it has noticed an “increase in the use of genuine documents”, by which Ms Cooper means real passports fraudulently obtained or stolen.

Three quarters of all fraudulent incidents take place at airports, she says.

In February, at a security and identity conference in Abu Dhabi, Mr Noble, of Interpol, warned that “only a handful of countries” were making good use of its database.

“The bad news is that, despite being incredibly cost effective and deployable to virtually anywhere in the world, only a handful of countries are systematically using SLTD to screen travellers,” he warned. “The result is a major gap in our global security apparatus that is left vulnerable to exploitation by criminals and terrorists.”

The SLTD database was set up in 2002 following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in which 19 passengers brought down four planes in the US, killing almost 3,000 people.

In its first year, only 10 countries contributed, submitting 3,900 records between them, and 145 searches were performed. Over the years the number of contributors grew steadily, hitting 91 in 2005, 154 in 2008, and 167 last year. There are 190 Interpol member countries in total, meaning there are 23 failing to contribute to the database. Only the country that issued the lost or stolen document can report it to the SLTD, which is separate from national lists of stolen or lost passports held by individual countries.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation, A United Nations specialised agency, has set a November 2015 deadline to remove all non-Machine Readable Passports from circulation, hopefully improving global passport security.

This will include handwritten passports and those that include another family member in addition to the holder of the passport. Countries can deny visa or entry to anyone travelling with a non-MRP after the 2015 deadline.

The ICAO says effective implementation of Machine Readable Travel Document standards and specifications is “instrumental in enhancing international security” and should reduce the numbers of people crossing borders illegally. But it will not eliminate them entirely.

munderwood@thenational.ae