Two passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight to Beijing were travelling on false passports, once belonging to an Italian and an Austrian national, and stolen some years ago in Thailand. Although we do not know whether there is any link between this and the loss of the plane, it is a disturbing discovery, nonetheless. All the more so, it must be said, when those familiar with travel in the Far East say it is commonplace for illegal migrants to move around on documentation that is not their own. Given the scale upon which we know such movements of people take place, it must therefore be a very common phenomenon, indeed. And the potential opportunities for terrorism are obvious.
It may be that the authorities in that part of the world feel themselves at relatively low risk of hijack and terror attack, compared with post-9/11 America, Europe and the Middle East. Governments in East Asia may well have thus concentrated their efforts on other types of crime. If so, such complacency is a serious error; the recent stabbing episode in China – in which 160 people were attacked, possibly by Xinjiang separatists, in a railway station in Kunming in the south-west – not to mention the ever-unpredictable North Korea, and religious and ethnic schisms in the Philippines and elsewhere, argue strongly otherwise.
The elementary precaution of ensuring that stolen passports are not subsequently used seems just that – elementary, and vital. To some degree it would reduce the incidence of smuggling, of illegal migration and fraud, and it would reduce the incentive to steal the documents in the first place.
It is also simple to implement – the Interpol database is freely available, with 40 million records from 167 countries ready to check. And yet still it is used for only around four out of every 10 air passengers. It would appear to be easier to fraudulently board a plane than it is to take on a tube of toothpaste if one is boarding in London. If governments and airlines make life that easy for terrorists, we cannot but expect them to take advantage of such criminal carelessness.