Mystery of flight MH370 raises fears of passport fraud
The vulnerability of travel documents has been exposed by the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, two of whose passengers boarded using stolen passports.
Although there is so far nothing to link them to the fate of the plane, the international police organisation Interpol is keen to highlight what it believes is a serious security loophole.
The Malaysian authorities have confirmed that the two passengers bought their tickets at the same time using travel documents that had been stolen in Thailand, one belonging to an Italian man and the other to an Austrian.
The passengers have been identified as Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 18, and Delavar Seyed Mohammadreza, 29, both of whom are Iranian.
Mr Mehrdad booked tickets to travel from Beijing to Amsterdam and then on to Frankfurt in Germany, where he is believed to have planned to seek asylum.
As both men were booked on a connecting flight from Beijing they were not required to apply for a Chinese visa. Recent changes to protocol at China's airports now allow passengers in transit 72 hours to make their transfer.
Checks not made
Interpol said that both of the stolen passports had been on its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database, but that airport and airline staff had failed to make the necessary checks.
"It is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol's databases," the agency's Secretary General, Ronald Noble, told reporters.
"If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against Interpol's database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH370."
Although the search for the identity of the two Iranians now looks to have been a distraction for investigators, the added twist to an already mysterious incident has highlighted the lack of co-ordination between airlines, airports and Interpol.
Interpol created its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database in 2002 following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, and it now contains more than 40 million records.
But the organisation has grown frustrated that "only a handful of countries" are using the system and said last year that passengers had been able to board planes more than a billion times without having had their passports screened.
The SLTD database is available to Interpol's 190 member states, but only three are said to systematically search the database - the US, UK and the United Arab Emirates.
It remains the responsibility of individual countries to integrate Interpol's database into their own security procedures, and although the information is free to access Mr Noble said it could cost tens of thousands of dollars to install.
With so many stolen passports in circulation it is not the first time that they have appeared as a footnote in an air tragedy.
In 2010, when an Air India Express flight from Dubai overshot the runway in the western Indian city of Mangalore and crashed, killing all 158 passengers, investigators found that 10 of them had been travelling with forged or stolen documents.
Although the documents are more often used by asylum seekers, illegal immigrants or people involved in criminal activities, they have been used by those behind past attacks.
Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, travelled to the US on a stolen passport, while Milorad Ulemek, who assassinated the Serbian president and prime minister in 2003, used a missing passport to cross 27 borders before he was caught.