Barbara Roche, the minister responsible for immigration, said last night that the scale of the human trafficking identified by British officials stationed at overseas airports was "absolutely incredible".
Sophisticated forgers based in the Thai and Malaysian capitals are offering a high-grade service in false passports and counterfeit British visas, she said. The forgeries are provided to criminal "facilitators" based in China, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who are offering packages to Britain for about pounds 7,000.
Mrs Roche said the trade in smuggling people, the extent of which came to light when the authorities mounted an international operation against the traffickers last month, was "big business. People should be in no doubt that there are gangs preying on very vulnerable people who want a better way of life but who are in no way people who qualify for asylum under the 1951 United Nations convention."
The scale of the human trafficking problem from Southeast Asia came to light last month when Britain launched Operation Foursight, a joint initiative with the United States, Canada and Australia, all of which also have problems with illegal immigration from the Far East.
The operation, centred on nine airports in the region, led to the interception of 272 travellers carrying false documents. Almost half of them were stopped at Bangkok.
The exercise highlighted the value of Britain's network of airline liaison officers (ALOs), who are based at airports overseas and advise airline staff on the validity of documents carried by passengers.
Mrs Roche said Britain's team of ALOs had been extended from five last year to 16, and a further four would be appointed in the new year.
Almost half of the economic migrants identified in last month's operation came from China, mostly from Canton province.
The manager of the ALO network ,Tony Berry, who is based at Heathrow airport, said Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and, to a lesser degree, Hong Kong had become the key stop-off points for the trafficking gangs on increasingly circuitous routes into Britain.
Once they have collected their forged documents, the migrants are then directed via the Gulf states or the so-called 'Stan states - Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - to London.
Mr Berry said: "The group may actually have a courier travelling with them, who arranges all the documentation and makes sure they have the tickets for the next stage of the journey."
He said the forgers have developed ways of replacing photographs in passports in a way that is almost undetectable. They have also found a means of counterfeiting the hard-to-copy plastic element on British visas.
British officials have complained to their Thai and Malaysian counterparts about the counterfeiting black markets that have developed in their capital cities.
Mr Berry said that any travellers on false documents who claimed to be asylum-seekers would be directed to the nearest office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mrs Roche is also concerned by the numbers of illegal immigrants being smuggled into London in railway freight containers that arrive at Wembley via the Channel Tunnel.
She said the migrants, mainly Romanians, were often deeply traumatised by the journey, made in "appalling conditions" hidden among packages of freight.Reuse content