Monique Keiran: Stolen passports open all the wrong doors

Their very name indicates admission or entrance. A passport — from the French passer la porte, or pass through a port — is a document that allows a person to pass from one country to another, from one world to another, even from one life to another.

We’ve heard of two instances in the last month in which people have tried to use such documents to gain entrance to new countries, new worlds and new lives.

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Just days after officials determined that two passengers aboard Malaysian Airlines flight 370 had been travelling under stolen passports, police in London, Ont., arrested three people for allegedly using fake passports to write exams on behalf of other students.

The incidents are of different orders of magnitude in terms of potential threat, but both events indicate the power of these small documents to open doors and allow transformation.

No evidence exists to suggest the two men who boarded Flight 370 with stolen passports had anything to do with the airplane’s later disappearance. Investigations indicate Iranians Pouri Nourmohammadi and Delavar Syed Mohammad Reza, who used stolen Austrian and Italian passports to board Flight 370, had no known links to terrorist organizations. Both European passports were listed in Interpol’s database of stolen passports. We may never know exactly what happened in this story.

The story of the surrogate students caught using fraudulent passports in Ontario is clearer. They were writing English proficiency exams for foreign students applying to attend university in Canada. Canadian colleges and universities use the exams to evaluate prospective students’ ability to read and write in the language of instruction. Students must pass the exams before their applications are accepted.

According to The Canadian Press, which reported the story in March, the “ghost students” presented fake passports showing their pictures with the identification details of the people who had hired them. Had all gone according to plan, the surrogates would have written the exams and received passing scores, paving the way for their clients to be admitted into college or university.

The surrogates had each been paid about $7,000 to write the exams.

Once admission at a Canadian college or university is secured, foreign students can apply for study permits from Immigration Canada.

So, while a good education might be considered a passport to success (a highly debatable statement these days), use of passports in this case was among the means for gaining admission to a good education, and would have led to visas granting temporary permission to remain in the new country, New World and new life.

As advanced degrees become screening barriers for even entry-level office jobs, and the right degree from the right university often translates into more or less assured success thereafter, the pressure to gain admittance into the ivory towers of academia increases. Cheating also increases.

In November, four Chinese surrogate students were arrested for their part in forging passports and taking English exams for cash in South Korea. In 2012, in the U.K., two ghost students were imprisoned and deported after they took English tests for illegal migrants. And in 2002, a Cambridge postgraduate student from China was jailed for a year for similar activities.

And then there’s Lu Xu. He served 34 months in a U.S. prison for defrauding business schools from Toronto to Miami. From January 2001 to July 2003, he sat for more than 200 Graduate Management Admission Tests on behalf of hopeful students. He’d walk into test centres with fake passports or driver’s licences, and a bad wig and lipstick if he was writing the exam for a woman, and would score about 750 out of 800 for his clients. At the height of the scam, he wrote 17 tests in 14 days.

Some universities and test administrators have increased student-identification requirements as a result of the likes of Lu. Now some institutions require, for example, palm scans or fingerprints.

As for international travellers, passports remain the accepted travel and identification documents.

The question now is whether governments can find a way for security officials at airports to quickly, easily and consistently compare travellers’ passport details against the international database of stolen passports.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com

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