Few Nations Check to See if Passports Are Stolen, Interpol Says
LYON, France - Despite heightened terror alerts around the world, people traveling on stolen passports continue to slip across international borders because few countries check to see if incoming passports are among those known to be missing, says Interpol, the international police organization based here.
For example, Milorad Ulemek, believed to have ordered the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindic of Serbia in March 2003, traveled in the previous two years using a stolen passport that border control officers in six countries stamped 26 times, including 6 times in Switzerland and 14 times in Greece.
"What's most shocking for me is how few countries are checking to see what passports coming in are stolen," Ronald K. Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, said in a recent interview.
He said that if European border controls had been tighter, Mr. Djindic might not have been killed.
The lack of vigilance in screening for stolen passports is one of most disturbing lapses in an evolving international antiterrorism regime that remains frighteningly lax, Interpol officials say.
Any review of the many terrorism investigations around the world shows the extent to which Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations rely on falsified travel documents to move operatives.
Often such documents are traded among associates in a terrorist network, but more frequently they are stolen or bought on the black market and changed with a photograph.
Mr. Noble is leading an effort to stop that by linking Interpol's 181 member countries to a stolen travel documents database that will let immigration officials at any border post screen incoming passports and ensure that they are not among the thousands of such documents reported stolen each year.
The database, which includes information for 1.7 million stolen passports and other travel documents, is available to all member states, though participation has been sluggish.
Two months after the database was ready to receive information in June 2002, only two countries had sent Interpol lists of their stolen passports.
Even today, only 49 countries have done so.
Mr. Noble has since won support from the European Union to encourage its member states to take part.
By Dec. 31, Interpol expects to have several million stolen documents registered from dozens of countries.
Interpol would like to be the repository for such information, Mr. Noble said, but privacy protection laws bar many countries from disclosing data from travel documents, even if the documents have been stolen.
For such data, Interpol is developing a system that will send searches to databases in its member countries: if there were hits, the requesting party would receive a notice reporting which country had the corresponding record and the two countries could then exchange information.
Interpol is developing similar systems to allow countries to check fingerprints and DNA samples against those on file in other member countries.
Mr. Noble said the systems were intended to protect the privacy of individuals while allowing the police to check whether people implicated in one country had been involved in crimes in another.
"In the future, we hope that if a country sends a fingerprint, for example, we can relay the request to all our member countries and get a reply, yes or no," Mr. Noble said.
Blanks present a particular problem because once a photo and personal information have been added, there is no way to see that the document is false unless the border police check the passport number, which normally exists in no database outside the home country.
Interpol's database, available via a secure Internet connection, is only useful if it is used at border control points around the world, but few countries have made it available to their immigration services.
The stolen documents on file are a small fraction of those circulating around the world, but still, Interpol says member countries should check all issued visas against the database to see which ones were obtained with a false document.
Summarized by Copernic Summarizer