Refugee crisis and Paris attacks put spotlight on Europe’s free-for-all. Greece and Italy trouble US officials the most.
ROME — Europe’s trade in forged and stolen passports is so out of control that the U.S. has given five EU countries until next week to act or risk losing visa-free travel right
The threat comes in response to growing alarm over the rising number of lost and stolen documents in the EU, which has doubled in five years. The number of forged passports in the Middle East is also a rising concern. Interpol has data on 250,000 stolen or lost Syrian and Iraqi passports, including blank documents.
American and European security officials speak of an “epidemic” created by a spike in demand from asylum-seekers — and from terrorists like those who carried out the Paris attacks last November, two of whom were carrying counterfeit documents.
In the aftermath of Paris, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security became so worried about the implications for screening travelers to America that it gave France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Greece a February 1 deadline to fix “crucial loopholes” or lose access to the U.S. visa waiver program. The program allows about 20 million people per year from 38 countries, most of them in Europe, to enter the United States for business or pleasure without a visa.
Next week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will report to President Barack Obama on how these countries have progressed.
On the issue of fraudulent passports, U.S. officials see a particular problem with two of the five: Greece and Italy.
The importance of counterfeit documents “as a facilitator in the movement of terrorists” is nothing new, said Interpol’s director of operational support and analysis, Michael O’Connell, pointing to the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report in the U.S..
European governments are aware of the problem. When EU justice and interior ministers met in Amsterdam on Monday, France’s Bernard Cazeneuve called for the creation of a task force to tackle a “real industry of false documents in Iraq, Syria and Libya,” which he said was run by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Cazeneuve said fraudulent passports are “very hard to detect” because they are often genuine documents seized from pubic offices overrun by ISIL or taken from dead soldiers or civilians. The French minister said that combating this trade was crucial to avoiding “further atrocities in future.”
Lost in transit
Two of the men who blew themselves up at the Stade de France on November 13 had used fake Syrian passports to cross into Greece. Four days later, Serbian police arrested a man with a Syrian passport that had the same details as one found near the body of one of the suicide bombers.
On December 16, Austrian police arrested two men who requested asylum using fake Syrian passports, and a few days later, two Syrians with an Austrian and a Norwegian passport were arrested in Italy en route to Malta.
Greece and Italy are especially important in efforts to combat the traffic in illegal documents because of their position as front-line states in Europe’s refugee crisis — and by extension, in the fight against ISIL.
“Document fraud is an important enabler of organized crime and terrorism, clearly. There is a whole subset of criminal activity and a criminal sector that is involved in stealing passports and producing sophisticated passports and supplying them to the criminal market.” — Europol Director Rob Wainwright
One Greek intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “between five and seven percent of all Greek passports stem from fake ID cards or birth certificates,” which he acknowledged were “fairly easy” to procure.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought up this problem with Greek officials when he visited Athens in early December, sources said. Ten days later, the Greek ministry of public order and the police set up a joint task force which has until the end of February to come up with a plan to replace existing national ID cards with electronic versions with a computer chip.
In Italy, pubic prosecutors are due in two weeks to release the findings of an investigation into the theft of hundreds of faulty passports from a batch of thousands on their way to be pulped 18 months ago. Police were only alerted to the theft a few months later when a traveler attempted to use a passport at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, with a serial number that records showed had supposedly been destroyed.
It is not just Greece and Italy that have a problem.
“There are certain countries, like Sweden, where you can lose your passports four to six times in a year and get four to six new passports. To date I believe there are at least 20,000 duplicates out there,” said one EU security official with knowledge of the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A whole travel package, including an EU passport, can cost up to €10,000.
Fake and fraudulent European passports are more expensive than Middle Eastern ones because they come under less scrutiny at the border. According to police from several European countries, prices on the black market for stolen, lost or forged EU documents range from €2,000 to €7,000.
“A whole travel package, including an EU passport, can cost up to €10,000,” said an Austrian intelligence official. “From what we know, the main production units are in the Balkans, followed by Turkey.”
Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, said criminal gangs have been investing more in the production of fake documents since they spotted a business opportunity in the migrant crisis.
“In the last period of last year we have seen the increasing importance of documents forgery and of identity forgery in the business of smuggling people to Europe,” Europol Director Rob Wainwright told POLITICO.
“Document fraud is an important enabler of organized crime and terrorism, clearly. There is a whole subset of criminal activity and a criminal sector that is involved in stealing passports and producing sophisticated passports and supplying them to the criminal market,” said Wainwright.
In the last six years, Interpol has seen a sharp uptick in the number of missing passports — within Europe and around the globe.
As part of broader efforts to address major shortcomings in coordination between national security agencies and police that were highlighted by the Paris attacks, interior ministers called in November for all EU external border control points to be connected to Interpol’s global databases and for automatic screening of travel documents by March this year.
Access to Interpol’s databases enables instant checks against nearly 55 million travel documents. The agency’s database of Stolen and Lost Travel Documents was set up in 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11, to help member countries detect the use of fraudulent travel documents. Among the documents logged are nearly 30,000 Syrian passports, of which about 4,000 were stolen as blank documents.
Interpol is keen for policymakers at every level — from the U.N. and EU to national governments and parliaments — to make fuller use of its data “to help them in their national security architecture and also to remind them that the misuse of identity documents facilitates crime and terror,” said Interpol’s O’Connell.
“We have to raise the level of public awareness and properly educate people to protect their identity the same way they do with their credit cards,” O’Connell said.
“They have to realize that a lost passport is a gateway for international travel and a public commodity to trade nowadays.”