- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
For Iranian nationals Pouri Nourmohammadi and Delavar Syed Mohammad Reza, the six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was just the second leg of a circuitous, illicit journey from Tehran to their respective destinations, Frankfurt and Copenhagen. The men used valid Iranian passports to enter Kuala Lumpur, before assuming stolen identities to embark on the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight 370. When the plane vanished en route to China, the puzzling revelation that two of its passengers had boarded using fraudulent passports ignited fears of a terrorist attack. That furor eventually subsided into dismay over lax airport security controls and an apparently robust market for stolen travel documents.
To a lesser extent, the story has also shed light on Malaysia’s role as a hub for Southeast Asia’s extensive illegal immigration — a steady, mass movement of people seeking jobs and, in some cases, political asylum in foreign countries.
“Southeast Asia has been used as irregular migration route for decades,” said David Knight, head of immigration and border management at the International Organization for Migrants. The widespread availability of fraudulent passports in Thailand, combined with weak border protections and pervasive corruption in places like Malaysia, tend to attract all manner of immigrants, as well as smuggling syndicates offering everything from stolen identification documents to airline tickets.
Human Rights Watch’s Alice Farmer, who researchers migration, estimates that, conservatively, hundreds of thousands of people illicitly cross international borders every year. “It’s far more common than we realize for people to travel clandestinely,” she said. “Most people don’t understand how difficult it is for some groups to get legal documents, and the number of people who travel irregularly is quite high.”
Though it’s difficult to determine what share of immigrants in Southeast Asia is illegal, data show that movement in general across the region has risen precipitously over the past few decades. From 2000 to 2013, for instance, the number of international migrants in Thailand increased from 1.2 million to 3.7 million, while in Malaysia that number rose from 1.6 million to 2.5 million during the same period, according to the Migration Policy Institute. “These are people who come from everywhere,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, the director of the institute. “It’s a mix of people — some genuine refugees, some who know they will get some humanitarian protections if they make it to one of 20 or so countries. And there are an awful lot of young people who are trying to find a better way to survive economically. All of these people are using the same routes.”
When news broke that the mysterious MH370 passengers with the stolen passports were Iranians trying to get to Europe, media reports made much of their country of origin, as well as the seemingly unlikely route they were traveling. But Iranian immigration to Malaysia, while not pervasive, isn’t entirely uncommon. The predominantly Muslim nation is home to an estimated 60,000 and 100,000 Iranian immigrants, many of whom fled Tehran during the 2009-2010 protests. And while it’s still relatively rare for people from the Middle East and Africa to travel through Southeast Asia en route to the West, according to Farmer, the traffic has picked up in recent months. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported “a surge in Syrian nationals using stolen or tampered passports to escape the country’s civil war by transiting through Thailand and other countries to enter the European Union.”
Farmer said that, of the migrants hoping to reach more prosperous countries, many end up stuck in Southeast Asia, unable to move on because of lack of resources. Indonesia, for example, has seen an influx of both Afghan migrants and ethnic Rohingyas from Myanmar, most of whom hope to make it by boat to Australia but rarely do. “They’re from countries where they can’t get a visa to get on a plane, so they have to move around the world using smuggling networks,” Farmer said.
As immigration and law enforcement officials close in on more established routes for illegal movement through Southeast Asia, migrants change course. Their journeys become more complex — and sometimes more dangerous. “Over the past decade, the complexity and global nature of these transnational smuggling networks have evolved,” Knight said. “At their most sophisticated level, these operations may involve complex itineraries traversing different continents and countries, and the use of false documents of various kinds, including passports, visas and relevant permits.”
Air travel is particularly tricky for migrants, given the many layers of security involved. Further complicating matters, common destination countries like the United States and EU member states discourage illicit migration via air by imposing carrier sanctions: These countries fine airlines that bring unauthorized migrants into their airports — in some cases, even if those migrants are granted asylum. It’s an incentive for airlines to rigorously verify the identities of their passengers. INTERPOL, meanwhile, maintains a database of more than 40 million stolen or lost travel documents, which is available at no cost to airlines.
But many carriers, including Malaysia Airlines, still don’t systematically screen passports. This creates an obvious hole in the fence for those hoping to move through the system undetected. “Although there are a lot of efforts put in place at airports to reduce incidents of people traveling on false passports, there clearly still exists that capacity to actually board a plane,” Knight said. “And once they get on that plane, they can just rip up their passport and put their hand up for asylum. The point is just to get on the plane.”