Forgers force redesign of new-look passports head here please

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The Independent Online
THE EU-approved maroon British passport must be scrapped and redesigned because it is forged too easily by immigration racketeers.

Home Office officials have been dismayed by the large numbers of people attempting to enter the country on doctored UK passports which are regarded within the immigration service as "rubbish".

The Government has now ordered the Passport Agency to revert to a format similar to that of the old black passport, where the photograph and personal details of the bearer appear on an inside page.

The current design allows forgers to cut into the thick back page and replace the photograph leaving minimal signs of tampering. The racketeers have also discovered that they can remove the upper laminate by drying it out in a freezer, peeling it back and making alterations to the photograph and details.

By reverting to the inside-page format, officials believe they are making it much harder for criminals to tamper with the thin paper without leaving obvious signs of forgery.

The British passports are high on a shopping list of international travel documents identified by organised crime groups as easy to obtain or to doctor for use in the trafficking of immigrants.

Large numbers of passports purporting to have been issued by the little- known Republic of the Marshall Islands - a former American dependency in the Pacific - have been sold by racketeers, who are offering packages priced at between pounds 3,000 and pounds 5,000 a head to beat immigration controls.

Large numbers of blank Italian identity cards have been stolen and sold into the hands of organised crime, while the security features on French ID cards have now been defeated by sophisticated forgers.

But increasingly immigration officials are having to deal with people - mostly from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and China - who arrive at passport control without any documents at all. In some cases, people seeking asylum are refusing to even say which airline they arrived on. As a result, mobile surveillance teams of immigration officers are being deployed at Heathrow Airport to look for passengers destroying their papers in airport corridors or on transfer buses.

The use of closed-circuit television cameras to observe passengers as they come off aircraft is being piloted and is likely to be extended so that those arriving without an identity can be traced back to the airline they flew with.

People attempting to enter the country illegally are using increasingly elaborate routes to disguise their country of origin. Dozens of Tamils from Sri Lanka, have arrived on flights from Turkmenistan in the former USSR and from Majorca.

The increased use of CCTV is one of many developments being considered as part of a comprehensive review of the asylum process, which is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.

Officials recognise that the system is in real difficulty and in need of major reform. The welfare system for asylum-seekers in particular is seen as unsatisfactory and expensive.

There is also a backlog of 50,000 asylum cases, with a further 20,000 awaiting appeal. Applications have fallen from 44,000 in 1995 to just over 32,000 last year.