Sophisticated forgeries are fuelling wave of global migration

John Nicol April 3 2000


Sophisticated forgeries are fuelling wave of global migration

John Nicol April 3 2000

His diamond-encrusted watch glistens as he spins the steel-blue BMW through a nighttime tour of his Bangkok. “Those two hotels are where you find the Russian and Uzbekistan prostitutes,” says the man known to international police and immigration authorities only as Zeeva. “The Iranians hang out here. They’re into kidnapping the children of rich Iranians and holding them ransom.” At the Grace Hotel, he goes on, pointing to the left, “many criminals meet after midnight in the basement lounge. It’s like the United Nations.” His ultimate destination is a KFC at one end of Patpong, a notorious street of bar girls, peddlers selling Rolex watches and designer knockoffs, and underage prostitutes selling favors to tourists. “This place scares me,” says Zeeva in a heavy Sri Lankan accent. “There’s too many guns and drugs about.”

Zeeva need not worry unduly. Slight, well-tailored and with a graceful stride, he is a fixture on Bangkok’s shadier streets, a “big man” to his countrymen because of what he does: smuggle humans to some of the world’s most favored locations with fake documents that fool even the most sophisticated security systems. When the BMW pulls up at the restaurant, a Patpong security guard rushes to open the door. After four postponements and numerous calls to his cell phone, Zeeva has agreed to meet a Canadian journalist to tell his story. It is a story of almost casual intrigue: he estimates that by securing false travel documents and other ID—his particular expertise is fabricating French papers—he has smuggled 700 to 800 of his fellow Tamils into Europe. “Never to Canada,” insists the 39-year-old, though that is not the view of Canadian authorities who have him on their wanted list.

One reason for his work is simple: “We have problems in our country. We have to leave.” The protracted Sri Lankan civil war doesn’t attract the attention of the world’s media as did Bosnia or Kuwait, he complains. “There are 80 million Tamils in the world with no homeland. Nobody speaks up for us.” So Zeeva does his part by helping to relocate Tamil Tigers to a nice developed country after their fighting days are over. Even though some of his countrymen and a Canadian were jailed last year for smuggling Tamils to Canada, Zeeva is not deterred. His work goes on. But “for a price,” he adds. “Always for a price.”

Hang out in the right circles in Bangkok, and anything can be bought, including a new identity. Thailand’s capital has become the global center for producing fake passports to facilitate an estimated $ 10-billion annual trade in people smuggling. Within two days, print shops can produce passports from almost any nation in the world, Zeeva told Macleans. A forged Canadian passport can be bought on Khao San Road, the backpackers’ haven in Bangkok, for $1,500. The forgeries are so exact that Canadian passport and immigration officials believe they are largely powerless to detect those who are trying to fake their way into Canada. Powerless, too, to protect the integrity of a document that was, not long ago, almost the epitome of fair play in international travel.

It’s like drinking during Prohibition. If people want to go to a Western country, they’ll find some way to do it.’

Just before Christmas, alleged terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who arrived in Canada on a fake French passport, showed up at the Washington state border with a fraudulently acquired Canadian one and enough bomb-making equipment to destroy three skyscrapers. But Ressam and others like him are only the high-profile tip of the iceberg in the increasingly routine game of squiring people around the globe with a heady array of false documentation—everything from phony diplomatic passports to re-created hunting licenses to back up a cover story.

Terrorists and stowaways arriving on smuggling ships garner the headlines, but the vast majority of illegal immigrants show up in Canada across the U.S. border or on regularly scheduled airplanes. They are the worlds economic migrants, people from almost every country imaginable with a dream to better their lives or at least taste what the Western world has to offer. And their numbers are rising. In 1999, the total of in Canada refugee claimants rose by 20 per cent to 30,390—the highest figures since 1992. Some of these are legitimate refugees, winning way here from countries torn by religious or ethnic strife. An increasing number are the queue-jumpers, coming primarily for economic betterment. They are the ones fueling the boom in counterfeit documents. They are the ones for whom Canada's Passport Office has created more than 20,000 files detailing passport abuse.

People smuggling, of course, involves more than just a phoney ID, no matter how convincing. At its highest level, it is a cat-and-mouse game in which smugglers go out of their way to teach their clients to act like someone who might own the passport they are carrying. That can mean lessons in history, geography and current events, as well as posturing: if clients are refused boarding, they are taught to be as cantankerous as possible, and to threaten to sue. In the United States recently, immigration officers sent back Chinese queue-jumpers who had dyed their hair vibrant colors and wore out-landish clothes, presumably on the notion that drawing attention to themselves would suggest they had nothing to hide.

Caryl Ayearst sits in the l4th-floor Canadian Consulate, gazing out at the bustle of Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor, where the latest scam has been the smuggling of young Chinese from Fujian province in the steel boxes on container ships. In almost three years in Hong Kong, the busiest Asian embarkation point for Canada, she has seen almost every gambit to jump the queue. For her, the interview is still the & best weapon to detect frauds. “I play the Canadian | quiz show,” says Ayearst, a former Torontonian who « has worked in immigration intelligence for 12 ¡§ years. “If they say they live in Montreal, I’ll see if they recognize any French. They memorize the name of the local hockey team. But I try to ask questions that someone hasn’t thought of in alien-smuggling school. When I offloaded one passenger who didn’t know what to say when I asked, ‘Do you pay taxes?’ the smugglers teach the next wave to say, ‘Yes, every April, I pay taxes.’ ”

In Ayearst’s case, the sleuthing is played out against Hong Kong’s cavernous new $ 10-billion glass-and-steel airport at Chek Lap Kok, a facility that transports 500,000 passengers to Canada each year. One day last month, she turned back five Bangladesh seamen trying to meet a nonexistent ship in Vancouver harbor. It’s a common ruse, also used by Russians and Ukrainians, that is usually exposed with one call to a Canadian port authority. Intelligence reports say other migrants who tried the scheme admitted to paying up to $6,000 for the covering letter and counterfeit seamen’s books, which are sometimes full of spelling mistakes.

In Thailand, Brian Crocker has seen the smugglers adjust. “Every time a country comes up with a new passport security feature, counterfeiters may take five months or so, but they’ll find some way to get around it,” says Crocker, Canada’s Bangkok-based immigration control officer. Airlines are heavily fined for allowing improperly documented travelers into Canada—passing that cost along to their regular customers. And the Canadian taxpayer must foot an estimated $50,000 cost for each claimant. But the ease of obtaining forgeries has undermined the passport as a document of record. “It’s like stopping people from drinking during Prohibition,” says Crocker, a 40-year-old from Corner Brook, Nfld. “If they want to go to a Western country, they’ll find some way to do it.”

Of course, scam passports vary dramatically in quality. On one end is a waxy version of a Canadian passport, which reeks of gasoline, and can be ordered through ads in Soldier of Fortune magazine, as well as through certain shady travel agencies sprinkled throughout the Far East, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada's intelligence reports, which Macleans has obtained. On the other is the high-quality knockoff that has made Bangkok the international center for forged documents of all types. The reason: law and opportunity.

Zeeva says that when he arrived in Thailand nine years ago, most of the underworld was making money off the drug trade. Now, everyone he knows who used to transport drugs has switched to transporting humans. That’s because the country’s myriad law enforcement agencies can often be bribed, and the penalties—especially when compared with drugs—are negligible: the maximum fine for possessing false papers is 3,000 baht, or $120. In Canada, the penalty for using or forging a phony passport can be 14 years, but the most common sentence has been a $500 fine, if anything. A refugee claim can override the law. Defense lawyers argue the drowning man defense: that a claimant had to do whatever was necessary to avoid persecution.

In the electronic age, it should be easy to verify a passport’s validity by simply running its identification number through a computer. But countries have balked at creating a common database that airlines can use: too easy to abuse, most say. Canada’s solution has been to deploy immigration control officers (ICOs) in 26 countries to teach airlines how to identify passengers with improper documentation. It is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Crocker says he has received eight death threats during his three-year posting in Bangkok, six from Chinese gangs. “One guy told me I better be extremely careful what I do,” said Crocker, his down-home lilt competing with the chirping cicadas above a rooftop Bangkok restaurant. “He said, ‘Give me back our passports and tickets, because bullets in Bangkok are extremely cheap, and so is your life.’ ” The threat was believable. Crocker estimates the smuggler’s cargo of 10 Chinese migrants was worth more than half a million dollars. In the lucrative movement of citizens from the People’s Republic of China, gangs charge between $22,000 and $75,000 per head—and have even killed their own agents for failing to deliver people to the right destination.

Bangkok became an international center for counterfeiting when Chinese gangs moved in during the mid-1990s, as China regained control of Hong Kong, say local police authorities. Counterfeiting initially focused on fake credit cards and bogus American money. The production of passports became an essential part of the documentation needed to use the credit cards and | to cash stolen traveller’s cheques. Now, with I the surge in Third World migrants seeking a | better life in Canada and the United States, the fake passport trade has taken on a life of its own. Gang-employed artists copy stolen models or peel back laminates on a passport’s vitals page to create a new identity. It has become so commonplace that Thai “seamstresses” sew up the new passports for as little as $4 apiece.

In Canada, the good forgeries are made in Montreal, and most of the smugglers are based in Toronto, says Bob Dixon, an RCMP investigator in the immigration and passport section anti-smuggling unit in Milton, Ont. “Why that is, we don’t know.” In a raid in Montreal in late 1998, RCMP officers upset Russian and Asian mobsters by seizing hundreds of bogus passports from different countries. Also in the cache: Canadian visas, citizenship cards and immigration forms. In other raids in Montreal, the RCMP has discovered the specialized plastic laminates for the Canadian passport—the same laminates that are easily obtained in Bangkok, says Zeeva.

Here at home, the good forgeries are made in Montreal, the smugglers are based in Toronto

If Bangkok is the world’s phony passport capital, Hong Kong International Airport is the scene of the most elusive scam to enter Canada illegally—the boarding-pass switch.

It works like this: Passenger A who wants to go to Canada but has no visa will buy a ticket to, say, Kuala Lumpur, while Passenger B, who has a visa but no intention of going to Canada, buys a ticket to Vancouver. In the airport departure lounge, at a restaurant table or in a washroom, the passengers switch boarding passes. Passenger A flies to Vancouver and applies for refugee status, discarding his phony documents en route. Passenger B cashes in the ticket to Kuala Lumpur.

For the longest time, this ploy was a thorn in the side of the airlines until Jean-Paul Delisle, Canada's former ICO in Hong Kong, came up with a better mousetrap. The Ottawa-born Delisle, 51, established his own document security company to process airline passengers. Using infrared detectors to scan key documents, and a team of security officers, he checks out every passenger boarding an Air Canada flight in the Hong Kong departure lounge. By doing that within the one-hour window before departure, his group has allowed only two improperly documented passengers to slip aboard Air Canada flights to Canada in the past 11 months.

Delisle’s services are not cheap. But he argues that his fees, $250 to $300 a flight, save the airlines more than they would pay in fines for transporting illegal passengers. Canada charges a rolling fee, depending on how good the airline is at stopping illegal migrants, but the highest rate is $5,000 and could mean paying per diem charges if refugees are held in detention. France and Australia also fine airlines about $2,500 plus per diem costs. An illegal Iranian immigrant who waged an unsuccessful two-year fight to stay in Australia ended up costing Cathay Pacific Airways close to $100,000.

Tracking down the bogus traveler in a busy international airport is not an easy game. Ayearst says she has been startled by the sophisticated forgeries of Ontario drivers licenses and hospital insurance cards she has confiscated in Hong Kong. She detected one Chinese national with a fraudulent Canadian passport and a doctored driver’s license only because the same photo was used—with the image reversed.

A new weapon in tracking the movement of false passports has been laws that allow authorities to intercept the mail of suspected smugglers. The Netherlands picked off a package of 10 counterfeit Canadian passports and passport laminates being sent from India to a Sri Lankan in The Hague that way. Thai customs has seized 72 improper passports in the mail, primarily the visa-exempt passports of certain European countries as well as of Japan and Korea. Toronto-based RCMP and Immigration Canada officials recently intercepted 12 packages of Iranian-Canadian documents on their way to Dubai.

These packages, which include passports and social insurance cards, credit cards, library ID and fishing licenses, are often passed on by members of a particular community trying to help people from their homeland to immigrate, says Brian O’Connell, an immigration intelligence officer based near the Toronto airport. Some new Canadians will rent out their passports and documentation to help friends and relatives arrive; some are expected to hand over the valued landed-immigrant papers known as IMM 1000s so they can be altered and included in someone else’s passport. Easily available chemicals can wash the typing from immigration papers, so new names and vital statistics can be entered.

‘Life is perceived to be better in the West. It’s peer pressure. To not go is a loss of face.’

Ayearst unearthed one smuggling ring last year that enticed 42 young Asian-Canadians to come to Hong Kong on an all-expenses paid trip, “lose” their passport and then reapply for one at the Canadian Consulate. “One after another they would come to the consulate and say, ‘I was out in a bar in Wan Chai, and I lost my passport, lost my ticket, lost everything.’ They were supposed to get $10,000, but they lost their passport, their ticket and they were left with nothing. They didn’t realize they had got involved with an organized crime syndicate.”

For all the pitfalls, the illegal refugees will keep coming. The reason is simple: the illegal route is much quicker than the legitimate way to emigrate. “If they go through normal channels, they might not qualify,” says the RCMP’s Dixon. Acceptance is based on a point system that includes an individual’s health, education and language abilities. But if, instead, they go to a smuggler to get in with false documentation, says Dixon, then they can make a refugee claim and spend a year or two trying to justify it. “If you come up with a believable story, and there are lots of lawyers around to help you do that, then you get accepted. If you don’t, the bulk of them just disappear underground anyway.” For example, of the 599 Chinese who arrived by boat last summer on British Columbia’s coast, 131 have been released from detention and 80 of them have disappeared.

China is the current flash point and the motivation is age-old and economic. “Life is perceived to be better in the West,” says Ayearst in Hong Kong. “It becomes very difficult to be in a village in Fujian where someone’s son has gone off to New York and sends money back, and now your neighbor has fridges and stoves and TVs, and you don’t. You have a son in the rice paddies. You tell him to get to New York. It becomes very much a peer-pressure one-up-manship with the neighbors. To not go is a loss of face to the family.” But an internal government report dated Feb. 17, recently obtained by Reform party Immigration critic Leon Benoit, said the process of buying one’s way into Canada is rampant at Canadian missions around the world. The report identifies 304 cases in Canada and at overseas missions of employee “malfeasance” in the immigration process. Most of the incidents involved locally hired staff in Canadian consulates abroad and 32 required police involvement. for more information and links

Hong Kong is one jurisdiction that takes the possession of false documents seriously, imposing a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail and a fine of up to $19,000. In Canada, “judges feel it is a victimless crime,” says Jocelyn Francoeur, director of security, policy and entitlement at the passport office. “And the costs of importing witnesses from every island airport in the world is prohibitive.” As a result, the passport office simply denies new documents or revokes them for up to five years to those who “misuse” their passport.

Adding to the confusion, RCMP headquarters has directed its officers not to pursue anyone for trying to smuggle a relative into Canada. This policy has caused considerable friction with immigration authorities, but the Mounties believe they have bigger fish to fry. They are on the lookout for terrorists, counterfeiters and possibly even Third World children being smuggled for body parts, according to one international intelligence alert. Back in Bangkok, Zeeva says children are often borrowed and used as cover for illegal migrants so they will appear as part of a family. What happens to these children when they get to Canada is anyone’s guess. In the shady world of human smuggling, money talks, identities are changeable and nothing is quite what it seems.


The largest groups of refugee claimants in Canada, by country of origin, from Jan. 1 to March 23*:

Pakistan 519

Sri Lanka 491

China 480

Hungary 315

India 243

Mexico 227

Congo 226

Colombia 213

Iran 144

* Figures represent total number of refugee claimants, accepted and rejected


Canada's Immigration officials sometimes are bemused by crude attempts to trick them. Some items from the blotter:

• Wearing blue tunics and white hats, eight men claiming to be members of the Pakistani navy marched into Bangkok airport with an “official letter” saying they were being sent on a vacation to Brussels, with an initial stop in Canada, because of the “excellent service” they had given. Told their story was not credible, they made a snappy salute, marched out of the airport and were never heard from again.

• One Angolan presented his own version of a Canadian visa—with a large map of Canada in dark burgundy alongside a British coat of arms.

• Some women carrying fake passports wear the same clothes, earrings and necklaces of the people in the photo—even though the passports were four years old.

• A Sri Lankan woman claimed she was the wife of the man she was traveling with, but when an official noted that her nose and cheeks were different from the passport photo, the man responded: “After we got married, her nose grew and her cheeks fell.”

How Immigration is fighting back

Later this week, Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan is expected to introduce a new law to crack down on illegal migrants. The bill will include increased funding for overseas efforts to stop the movement and tougher penalties for people smugglers, say Immigration Canada insiders. But these are only the first steps in Canada’s attempts to counter the surge in human smuggling. Macleans has learned that the new Canadian passport, due out later this year, will have the photo embedded in the plastic laminate on the main page. Jocelyn Francoeur, director of security, policy and entitlement at the passport office, would not discuss details, but he said the new security features will stop “basement” artists from coming out with credible counterfeit versions.

Companies specializing in the latest tricks to identify people by their fingers, hands, eyes and ears have approached the passport office about including such security methods in the new passport, but Francoeur said they would have been useless without other countries following suit. “Member states of the International Civil Aviation Organization haven’t chosen a particular technology or preferred biometric,” says Francoeur. He believes the best non-intrusive way of identifying someone is still with a picture, adding that the British, Germans and Americans are all concentrating on making the photos tamperproof, and will be releasing new passports without so-called biometric data.

One big glitch is that the passport of the world’s most populated country— the People’s Republic of China—has few security features, yet many of its citizens want to move to North America. There has been a slight drop-off in the number of Chinese illegal migrants so far this year, notes Greg Leithead, an immigration intelligence officer in Ottawa. That’s because Canada has worked with French police to stop a Chinese ring that was using Paris as a launching pad; also because Operation Foresight, a multinational November sting operation at nine airports in Asia, sent a message to smugglers. But it’s a message that will likely deter them only for a short while. John Nicol