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.
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
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."
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."
Rahman Roslan/Getty Images