Keating: Malaysia Airlines mystery and the passport underground

The presence of two men traveling on fake passports on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane initially seemed like an indication that terrorism might have been involved. But it now appears to have been an example of something far more common—two Iranian men traveling to Europe on forged passports from Thailand:

The 19-year-old Iranian passenger, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, who was using a stolen Austrian passport, was traveling to Germany, where he was to meet his mother, said Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police.

“We are in contact with his mother,” Mr. Khalid said at a news conference.

Interpol identified the second Iranian traveler as Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, who used a stolen Italian passport, and released a photograph of the two men boarding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the same time….

Thousands of Iranians seeking to leave their home country wait in Asian countries with friendly visa regulations to make the second part of their migration to the West and to Australia. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are popular jumping-off points for middle-class Iranians who arrive on tourist visas and are helped by local travel agents and by people-traffickers to travel to the West.

Getting an Iranian passport isn’t always that easy for Iranian citizens, and they are frequently forged, but even with one, options can be limited for travelers from the country. Iran is ranked 86th out of 93 on Henley & Partners’ travel freedom index, which looks at visa restrictions on travelers with different nationalities.

Ironically, Israeli passports—which are considered easy to forge but allow a wide range of visa-free travel in Asia and Europe—seem to be one of the more popular options for Iranians looking to emigrate. Seven Iranians with forged Israeli passports were arrested in Vancouver last summer. They had been planning to emigrate.

Thailand, where the two men reportedly purchased their passports, has become a global hub for the production of fake travel documents. The documents in question here were apparently stolen at the beach resort of Phuket within the last two years.

More rare and expensive are the lost or stolen passports — some of which have been sold by tourists to black market buyers. They are used by criminals to cross borders, where immigration officials’ eyes are better trained to spot fakes.

Many of these passports are sold by or stolen from the more than 10 million tourists who visit Thailand each year.

One 24-year-old French tourist said he was offered US$240 by a clean-cut Iranian man in his 30s staying at the same guesthouse he was at on Bangkok’s Khao San Road — the popular backpacker district that police say is a major source of black market passports.

“Some Westerners will sell their passports for US$500 to get quick cash, and then they’ll say it was stolen, so it’s hard to crack down,” immigration policeman Chote said.

In 2010 Thai police arrested a Pakistani national named Muhammed Ather “Tony” Butt who had allegedly operating a passport-forging gang for more than a decade and was linked to terrorism groups including those responsible for the 2004 Madrid train bombing, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is accused in involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.

Last August, Malaysian police arrested an Iranian man who had jumped bail in Thailand after being held for a year on suspicion of “providing fake passports to human trafficking and drug rings, as well as terrorists plotting out bombings in Bangkok.”

A spokesman for Iran’s parliament has called reports about the two Iranians on the plane “psychological warfare” and an attempt to pin the blame on Muslim countries, but in this case, authorities seem to be strongly leaning against the possibility that the two men were in any way involved in terrorism.

Like thousands of others every year, they seem to have been migrants attempting a dangerous journey who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.