The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 8 cast a spotlight on Thailand’s reputation as a center for the trade in stolen and forged passports, after two of the passengers on board booked tickets with passports that were taken in Phuket.
Burmese immigrants in Thailand told The Irrawaddy this week that some of their countrymen are involved in the illegal passport trade, an underground businesses that is now the target of a large Thai crackdown.
“I have heard that some people in the passport market have been under questioning by Thai police, while some others have escaped,” said a Burmese man in Bangkok with knowledge of the passport trade.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some Burmese immigrants are involved in the passport business in Thailand, adding that Thai immigration officials and police have now begun to target the illicit trade.
Meanwhile, a Burmese passport dealer, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had fled Bangkok in the wake of the tragic disappearance of the Malaysian plane in order to escape the crackdown.
The man explained that there are three types of passports available in the illegal market—stolen, sold by owners for different reasons, and forgeries. Dealing in passports, he added, is a lucrative business.
“On the black market, a Burmese passport was worth between 40,000 baht [US$1,300] to 60,000 baht [$2,000] while a passport from the United States cost 100,000 baht [$3,300] and over,” said the Burmese man. “Passports from European countries could be sold for at least 80,000 baht [$2,600].”
An estimated 2 million Burmese immigrants live in Thailand, where they often work in low-paid jobs, such as in restaurants, the Thai fishing industry or in the construction sector. Many crossed into Thailand illegally and lack official identity papers, making them vulnerable to abuse by employers. Some resort to obtaining illegally-sourced passports and forgeries.
The Burmese man said many passport dealers in Bangkok have now gone into hiding after Interpol announced last week that two Iranians on board MH370, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, had obtained Austrian and Italian passports that were stolen in the Thai beach resort of Phuket. The Iranians were reportedly illegal immigrants trying to reach Europe.
Their tickets were booked under Austrian and Italian names on March 6, 2014, and issued in Pattaya, a popular beach city located south of the Thai capital Bangkok.
“We want to know whether their passports were lost or stolen, and if there was a gang taking their passports out of Thailand,” Pol-Lt-Gen Panya Mamen, Thailand’s provincial police Region 8 Commissioner, told The Bangkok Post last week.
Tens of millions of tourists visit Thailand every year and many spend their holidays in the southern beach resorts, where their passports are vulnerable to theft, not in the least because of the country’s reputation for lax law enforcement and corruption.
The Associated Press quoted a senior Thai intelligence official as saying that authorities are investigating about 10 passport-trading syndicates in Thailand, adding that most were run by nationals from Pakistan, India, Iran or Central Asia for clients that are mostly illegal migrants.
Some of the forged passports are also sold to human traffickers, or occasionally, terrorists. Airport and customs controls to detect forged passport are reportedly poorly enforced in many cases.
According to Interpol, as of March 2014, its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, created in 2002, contains information on more than 40 million travel documents, such as passports, identity document and visas, reported lost or stolen by 167 countries.