Lax security over passport control exposed
By HEDLEY THOMAS
IMMIGRATION Department officers have been handing genuine passports to imposters, opening the door for criminals to collect, use and sell other people's valued travel documents.
Lax security over the thousands of passports received by the Government for visa endorsements every week has been revealed in the heart of the Immigration Department in Wan Chai.
A Caucasian Post reporter was handed a Pakistani's passport by an immigration officer, who asked no questions and did not check to see whether there was a likeness with the identity photograph.
The exercise was repeated on several occasions, including one when the same reporter was handed a much older Hong Kong-Chinese man's United States passport by a different officer.
Several officers over three days were observed giving passports to whoever turned up to claim them.
There were no attempts to verify whom the passports were being handed to.
Senior police, advised by the Post about the ease with which other people's passports could be acquired, described the department's lack of procedural security as staggering.
A former officer close to work practices in Immigration Tower said the situation was ripe for exploitation by opportunists, from Hong Kong residents hoping to flee the territory to criminals desperate to escape.
He said genuine US and Canadian passports with Chinese names and photographs fetched tens of thousands of dollars on the black market.
''You could pass through Kai Tak and be winging your way to another country within an hour by getting a passport from someone who bears a likeness, thanks to obliging immigration officers,'' he said.
''Or if you wanted to make a fast buck you could take that passport and sell it in Tsim Sha Tsui. The fact that immigration officers make it so easy is scandalous,'' he said.
In the crowded halls of Immigration Tower, hundreds of foreigners and expatriates every day come to hand in their passports for work visa endorsements and extensions of stay.
Many people too busy to endure the process hire private immigration consultants who handle everything.
After the passports are handed in and stamped, they are ready for collection. An officer at a cashier's booth then calls the name inside the passport and hands it to whoever comes forward, without asking for any identification or proof of approval to collect the document.
The US, Canadian and Australian consulates said they had security procedures which included office staff making basic security checks to ensure no unauthorised persons could collect passports.
A spokesman for the Immigration Department said that officers checked that the person in front of the counter was the rightful holder or an authorised representative.
''In the absence of detailed information, we are unable to comment on cases you have mentioned, but according to our records, we have not received any complaints from the applicants that their passports were lost after they were handed to us for processing,'' he said.
''However, we will brief our officers once again to ensure that the procedures are properly followed. Thank you for bringing the case to our attention.''