When a German tourist refused to surrender his passport as collateral at a car rental stand along a popular beach in the Thai city of Phuket, the woman behind the counter pulled out a bag full of passport books to prove he could trust her.
“I said absolutely not — no way,” the tourist, Falko Tillwich said, and later handed over his driver’s license instead.
Tillwich’s concern: Losing vital travel documents, or worse — having them stolen by criminal syndicates that are exploiting lax law enforcement and corrupt police to support a global network of human smugglers, fugitives and occasionally, terrorists.
Those worries were heightened last week after investigations into the Malaysian jetliner which went missing on March 8 with 239 people aboard, revealed two Iranian citizens had boarded the flight with passports stolen from tourists in Thailand.
Investigators say it was unlikely the two men had links to terrorism and appeared to be illegal migrants trying to get to Europe.
However, authorities were re-examining the list of crew and passengers after deciding the plane had deliberately changed course after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on the way to Beijing, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Saturday.
“[Passport theft] is a very big and critical problem in Thailand,” said police Major General Apichart Suribunya, who serves as Thailand’s Interpol director.
“It is a problem that Interpol, the United Nations and the international community have been trying to solve for years,” he said.
So far, with limited success.
Thailand’s sapphire blue waters, wildlife parks, delicious cuisine and red light districts have attracted tourists for decades.
Last year alone, 22 million foreign visitors made the trip.
“There are more passports to steal in Thailand than other countries in the region,” said Clive Williams, a counterterrorism expert at Macquarie University in Australia.
Phuket is one of Thailand’s tourism honeypots.
Tourists flock here in droves each year for its sun, sand and laid back ambience.
Some, like Italian Luigi Maraldi, lose their passports along the way. Maraldi hired a hired a motorbike on Phuket last year. When he returned to the shop to retrieve his passport, he was told it had been given away to someone who looked like him.
His passport, along with another stolen in Phuket two years earlier, went undetected and was used to board the ill-fated flight, revealing startling shortcomings in the security of international travel.
Interpol says it maintains a global database of 40 million lost or stolen travel documents, but only a handful of countries actually check it before allowing passengers aboard flights.
Malaysia and Thailand are not among them.
Apichart said accessing the database is not complicated, but Thai authorities use it only when travelers are deemed suspicious.
The global intelligence company Stratfor said that passport fraud is common among human traffickers, drug smugglers, arms merchants, money launderers, fugitives and pedophiles — many of whom end up in Thailand.
“Only a very small percentage, [of those involved in the underground trade have terror links],” Stratfor said.
Nevertheless, the threat remains a concern. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US, Thailand — under pressure from Western governments — vowed to crack down.
In 2004, police arrested a Bangladeshi who allegedly supplied forged passports to al-Quada-linked terrorists, including the mastermind of the 2002 Bali attacks.