THE number of forged passports seized from mainlanders has soared, sparking fears that Hongkong has become a stepping stone for Chinese fleeing to the West. Principal immigration officer for investigations Mr Mak Kwai-yun said most of the offenders had indicated they were using Hongkong as a transit point to the United States and Europe. He appealed for more staff to prevent Hongkong becoming a stepping stone for illegal immigration and a safe haven for travellers using forged documents. The number of people arriving in the territory carrying bogus travel documents more than doubled in the two years following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and most of the fake passports were seized from mainlanders. Immigration statistics showed the seizure of forged passports had increased more than 20 times from 138 in 1982 to about 2,840 last year. Relaxed immigration procedures - including those allowing people to seek asylum - in some countries probably encouraged people to try to get to Hongkong illegally, immigration officials here believe. ''Our intelligence suggests most forged passports are used to facilitate unauthorised users to get into the US, because this is perceived as having the regulations which are most favourable to asylum seekers,'' Mr Mak said. In 1989, about 53 per cent of offenders had indicated Hongkong was only a transit point, but by last year 63 per cent of those caught indicated they were ''just passing through''. They used Hongkong as a transit point to North America, Europe and Japan because of the large number of airline routes out of the territory. Officials believe the illegal travellers also hoped to get immigration chops in Hongkong to convince authorities at their destination that they were bona fide tourists and disguise the fact they were from China. Mr Mak said few of the passports were entirely forged and most were genuine travel documents with photographs altered or changed. Despite a doubling of faked passports seized between 1989 and 1991, manpower had remained stagnant since 1989. A recent request for a special task force to reinforce control points during busy times, and boost investigations at other times, had been rejected. ''We are hard-pressed with the resources we have to maintain control points. Our investigation division also is hard-pressed because of the number of cases including other investigation work such as illegal workers.'' At present the Immigration Department has an airport duty team of seven officers and the special investigation section with about 50 officers. The number of seizures had increased despite the shortages, and this could deter many offenders. ''Our intelligence suggests that completely fake passports are seldom used in Hongkong because our officers know by examination that they are fake,'' he said. He said the number of offenders who indicated Hongkong was their chosen destination had dropped from 20 per cent to 11 per cent since 1989. However, calculations show the actual number has risen from 236 to 312. Most of these offenders were from the Philippines and the Indian sub-continent and had indicated they had come to Hongkong hoping to get a job. Mr Mak said international immigration authorities were sharing intelligence and considering standardising passports which could be machine readable.