At least two passengers on board the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines plane, which has almost certainly crashed into the sea, were traveling with stolen passports.
Apart from raising speculation as to whether or not terrorism played any part in the aircraft’s disappearance, it has created awareness of the international problem of stolen passports and other documents, and the fact that few countries, including Malaysia, check passport validity.
Astonishingly, according to a report in USA Today, more than 40 million travel documents, mainly passports, have been reported stolen or lost since 2002. Interpol only started a database to track these instances following the 9l11 terrorist attacks in America.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said on Sunday that, “Only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights.”
He confirmed that at least two stolen passports were used to board missing Malaysian flight MH370
Interpol said no country has made any checks on those passports since they were reported stolen in Thailand — an Austrian one in 2012 and an Italian one in 2013. It’s possible that this is not the first time they have been used.
The United States is one of the few countries to use Interpol’s database to screen people entering the country. It does more than 250 million checks a year. Second is the United Kingdom with at least 120 million checks. The next highest number is that of the United Arab Emirates with only 20 percent of the U.S. total.
Interpol’s database is available to all 190 member countries, but relatively few have taken advantage of the information it contains.
For example, Interpol reports that in 2013 passengers boarded planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against its database.
The 9/11 hijackers obtained and modified stolen passports that got them into the United States. There are many ways terrorists can use passports, including changing stolen ones with new photos or doctoring them to create a fake travel history by adding or removing visa entry stamps.
Michael Greenberg, founder and director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, said there’s still no effective way to guarantee that the person presenting a passport is the person to whom it was issued, “Passports are a very weak link in the security system.”
He added that the U.S. system is better than the one used internationally. Had the Malaysia Airlines flight been headed to the United States, he said, the passenger manifest would have been checked before takeoff.
In a sobering observation on the dangers of international flight, Greenberg commented, ” if you’re flying between two foreign airports, you’re at the mercy of whatever the host and receiving countries are doing.”