Rise in passport rackets feared

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 1996, 12:00am

DIPLOMATS fear an explosion in the black market for forged travel documents after the handover next year, when Hong Kong residents will be able to hold two passports.

Their concerns about British passports or Hong Kong identity documents being sold to syndicates come as the number of people being smuggled in from the mainland is at a high.

Western diplomatic sources said they were worried that the problem would worsen when Special Administrative Region passports were issued and residents were allowed to hold on to their British passports or, possibly, Certificates of Identity.

'Our concern is the more documents in circulation, the greater the potential for problems,' one diplomat said.

The forgery of British National Overseas passports was popular with syndicates who substituted the photograph of the holder with that of an illegal immigrant or impersonate the holder, an Immigration Department spokesman said.

One indication of the growth of the problem is an increase in the number of BNO passports reported lost or stolen - up from 2,826 in 1993 to 3,656 last year.

The diplomatic source said syndicates were using stolen passports to smuggle mainlanders to Western countries through Hong Kong and countries such as Japan, South Korea or the Philippines.

A courier accompanies them on flights and takes away the passport once they have arrived. The illegal immigrant then goes to work, applies for asylum or sometimes enters prostitution.

When the SAR begins issuing its blue-covered, high-security passports in 1997, about 5.5 million people are expected to be eligible for them.

There are already 2.5 million BNO passports in circulation. They are valid for 10 years from their date of issue and holders will not have to hand them back to get their SAR passport.

The question of giving up Certificates of Identity - of which 1.3 million are held by people who have not applied to become citizens of a British dependent territory - is still being considered.

Another diplomatic source was worried about 'having one million Certificates of Identity open to abuse' with forged or extended visas being given to relatives in China or sold as the SAR passports were issued.

But a Government official said the certificates were unlikely to be popular among smugglers because they required visas.

There was not a serious problem with fake passports and Hong Kong people valued their travel documents too highly to allow them to be used illegally, the official said.