Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Interpol vs. the Poor

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 9, 2013 --  

Cracking down on stolen passports is less about fighting terrorism than it is about trapping the world's poor.

When the names of two Europeans with stolen passports showed up on the manifest of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 speculation spread like wildfire that terrorists may have taken down the plane.

This speculation was based on two levels of ignorance:  first, nobody knows what happened to the missing plane.  Second, journalists and readers in the cushy first world simply can't fathom why non-terrorists might travel on a somebody else's passport.

The answer, unfortunately, is simple. People from poor countries can't travel on their own passports because rich countries won't let them in. Europe, America, Japan, and many other nations refuse to grant entry visas to passport holders from poor countries because they are afraid they won't go home. In an effort to keep out economic migrants, they refuse to let poor people in.

Today's reports show that this is precisely what was going on with the two men who used the Austrian and Italian passports to board the Malaysian Airlines jet.1 The young men (one was 18 or 19 and the other 29) were from Iran, where sanctions and a faltering economy have pushed youth unemployment to about 24 percent.2 Given an absence of opportunity at home, and the refusal of the rich world to grant unemployed young Iranians visas, it is hardly surprising that they were willing to use stolen passports to make their way to Europe, where one had a mother living in Germany. The two had sought help from an Iranian in Thailand to book flights from Malaysia though Beijing to Europe.3 He may have gotten them the passports, too.

With the Malaysia Airlines plane missing and the passengers presumed dead, the Iranians will probably never face prosecution for using the stolen passports. But the consequences could still be severe for other people flying on other people's lost, stolen, or sold passports.

The incident has provided Interpol, which runs the database of known lost and stolen passports, a spotlight to push for wider adoption of screening all passports at airports around the world. Currently most checks against the database are in the United States, Britain, and the United Arab Emirates, and most world airports don't check for stolen passports at all.4 Widening this check sounds good to Westerners spooked by terrorism threats, but the main effect of any such change will be felt not by terrorists, but by people from poor countries who simply want to fly to rich countries.

Freedom of movement is widely recognized as a basic human right, yet rich countries do everything they can to squash this right when it comes to poor foreigners. What's more, these efforts generally have widespread public support. People in the developed cite plenty of motivations to keeping poor migrants out: protecting their own jobs from foreign competition, preserving their culture from foreign influences and limiting access to expensive government benefits. But these motivations do not alter what happens as a consequence — poor people are confined to places with little or no opportunity, and are denied the chance to improve their circumstances. At least legally.

Cracking down on the use of false passports for airline travel will probably not much affect immigration patterns. History has shown that motivated migrants will find a way. Latin Americans ride on top of trains or in semi-trailers and then hire “coyotes” to smuggle them across the U.S. Border. Asians and Africans seeking passage to Europe hide in shipping containers. Many of the Latin Americans die of dehydration or exposure in the deserts, and the Asians and Africans suffocate or die of heat stroke in sealed metal containers.

Compared to taking these risks, buying a lost or stolen passport to fly to a rich country doesn't sound like such a bad idea after all. The young Iranian men may have died on their flight, but it is only notable because it is so exceedingly rare. If denied this means of travel, future migrants will probably die far more frequently.

Related Web Columns:

Profoundly Evil
The Deadly Face Modern Migration
, July 27, 2000


1. New York Times, Stolen Passports Not Seen as Terror Link, March 11, 2014

2. Financial Times, Iran President Vows to Tackle Inflation and Unemployment, December 8, 2013

3. New York Times, Ibid.

4. Voice of America, Mysterious Travelers on Malaysia Flight Raise Questions on Passport Security, March 10, 2014