Interpol, the world’s largest police organization, is working with Southeast Asian countries to bolster border security amid lapses in immigration checks before Malaysian Air Flight 370 went missing.
The discovery that two passengers boarded the missing jet using stolen passports has raised concern about Malaysia’s immigration security practices as the hunt for the plane enters its 20th day with ships and aircraft scouring the Indian Ocean.
More than 40 million passports are listed as missing on a database created by Interpol in 2002, yet planes were boarded about a billion times last year without the travel documents being screened against the register. The two Iranian nationals were able to board the plane in Kuala Lumpur using passports that were reported stolen in Thailand.
“The lesson that we need to learn from these kinds of incidents that happen now is the importance of technology to be accessible to all law enforcement and mainly immigration officers in accessing and integrating all the available police data,” Julia Viedma, Interpol’s director of international partnerships and development, said in an interview in Singapore yesterday.
The agency is in discussions with partners such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to enhance border security at airports and other checkpoints in some of the countries with some funding from the European Commission, she said. Interpol’s goal is to make the data assessible regardless of the country’s economic status, she said.
“It’s not the idea of if I’m a rich country I’m able to buy myself the technology that I need, if I’m a poor country I’m not able to do it,” Viedma said. “We need to really try to make these differences disappear.”
Passport theft or loss is common in Thailand, with Russian, British and French passports the most commonly reported as missing last year, according to data from Thai police. About 2,475 losses were reported from the top 10 nationalities combined, data show.
Lyon, France-based Interpol, has warned since at least 1973 about the increased use of counterfeit passports as international tourism boomed. Criminals have made and used false passports and altered authentic travel documents for uses including for trafficking and smuggling, the agency said.
Only a few countries systematically search Interpol’s databases to determine whether a passenger is using a stolen or lost travel document, the agency said in an earlier statement. More than 800 million searches are conducted annually, and stolen or missing passports are found an average of 60,000 times a year, Interpol said.
The challenge for Interpol is to persuade governments -- rather than airlines -- to enforce stricter immigration checks when travelers leave their countries, said Philip Baum, managing director at Green Light Ltd., a London-based provider of security training and consultancy services.
In most countries, airlines can’t access the Interpol data base, he said, limiting the checks to border security agencies.
“Most immigration authorities around the world are primarily worried about who is coming into their countries, not who is going out,” Baum said. “Immigration authorities tend not to see aviation security as being their responsibility.”
The use of stolen passports raised concerns earlier that the disappearance of the plane carrying 239 people may be connected to terrorism. Austria and Italy said passports used by two male passengers were stolen from their citizens.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said March 24 the jet’s last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean off Australia’s west coast and the flight ended there, based on satellite data from Inmarsat.
Four Chinese ships will search a remote stretch of the ocean today for wreckage from the missing plane as Malaysia said more than 100 objects had been spotted by satellite, joining aircraft from Australia, Japan, and the U.S. Objects as long as 23 meters were identified in a 400-square kilometer area of the ocean in fresh satellite photos, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday.
While there is no evidence that the two passengers had any connection to the March 8 disappearance of the Boeing Co. 777-200 en route to Beijing, the security breach should be a rallying call for governments to act, according to Rohan Gunaratna, head of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. He estimates that fewer than 30 countries screen all traffic through the Interpol data base.
“People don’t want to do it because it’s added work, added responsibility,” Gunaratna said. “It is now imperative for governments to screen all passengers passing through their land bonders, sea ports and their airports against the Interpol database.”