While it remains unclear whether the two passengers who boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on Saturday on stolen passports have any connection to the plane’s mysterious disappearance, the fact they made it on board at all has brought the failures of governments worldwide to carry out adequate border security checks sharply into focus.
But amid growing concerns, Cambodian officials claimed yesterday that security protocols that would have flagged the passports are in place here.
In a highly critical statement on Sunday, Interpol said that the two stolen passports used on MH370 – one Austrian and one Italian – were listed in its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database soon after they were stolen in Thailand in 2012 and 2013, but that Malaysian authorities had failed to cross-check them.
Malaysia is hardly an exception, with more than 1 billion passengers worldwide having been allowed to board planes last year without having their passports checked against Interpol’s database of 40 million entries, the international police organisation said, lamenting that “only a handful of countries” are actively utilising the system as part of security processes.
Cambodia is one of those countries, top immigration and local Interpol officials said yesterday, though they disagreed on how long the Kingdom had been systematically checking the database and how often hits were made.
Major General Keo Vanthan, director of the Interpol National Central Bureau at the Ministry of Interior, said that Cambodia’s international airport has been connected to the SLTD database, along with seven other international border checkpoints, since 2007.
“We type the passport number in by hand, one-by-one, and it checks the lost and stolen travel document database. If there is a hit, we contact the relevant [Interpol country office] to confirm that the passport is in the database and if they confirm we take action,” he said, adding that only a handful of hits are made each month.
“I think most of the countries in the ASEAN region are equipped with this system, but Malaysia doesn’t have such a system yet. This is the problem. The system which is set up at the border crossings checks all foreign travellers coming in or out of Cambodia.”
But Major General Pin Piseth, director of the Department of Immigration, said that immigration officers had only been using a system that checks all passports against the Interpol database since 2012.
He added that, contrary to Vanthan’s comments, no passports had been flagged during cross-checks with the Interpol database thus far by immigration officers.
“We make a lot of arrests of people using a fake passport or [using someone else’s passport] but not from Interpol. This is from the work of our immigration officials; this is why we train them.”
Explaining the difference between their accounts of screening processes, Interpol’s Vanthan said that his officers checked passports independently of immigration officials.
Piseth, on the other hand, said they “worked together”.
”We provide them with information, but I cannot tell you the details of our procedure.”
Just weeks before flight MH370 went missing with 239 passengers and crew onboard, Interpol warned that not enough countries were taking advantage of its easy-to-access database, creating a “major gap in our global security apparatus that is left vulnerable to exploitation by criminals and terrorists”.
Malaysian authorities have launched a review of airport security screening, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has reported.
“I am still perturbed. Can’t these immigration officials think? Italian and Austrian but with Asian faces,” Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was quoted as saying by Malaysian state media after he revealed that the two European passports had been used by passengers of Asian appearance, the ABC said.
Launched in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2002, Interpol’s SLTD database was searched more than 800 million times last year. About 420 million of those searches were by its top three users: the United States, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.
Cambodia welcomed 4.2 million international tourists in 2013, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
With increased tourism, petty theft, usually in the form of bag snatchings, has been on the rise in major cities in recent years, a number of foreign embassies have noted.
“Although the common petty theft that occurs almost weekly against US citizens in Cambodia is related to stealing purses and handbags, passports are included in that mix,” US embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said.
The US embassy could not provide recent figures for the number of passports stolen from its citizens in Cambodia before press time.
According to the British embassy, 90 British nationals reported their passports stolen in 2013.