We now know that the two men travelling on stolen passports on board the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 are thought to be Iranian asylum seekers en route to Europe. This has exposed as unwarranted the alarmist response to the discovery that passengers with falsified or stolen passports were on the flight. For the poorest people living in the global south, often from war-torn countries or repressive regimes, obtaining a falsified or stolen document is often the only way out.
And yet the mundane, everyday phenomenon of falsified travel documentation rapidly attracted a disproportionate degree of attention. The suspicion was quickly aired in the media, spurred on by officials, that those passengers holding falsified passports might have terrorist connections. And this has come hard on the heels of the story of the easyJet flight grounded when schoolchildren panicked after seeing a fellow passenger writing in a script they believed to be Arabic. All this is symptomatic of a moral panic that is presenting the “Islamic radical” and the “illegal immigrant” as the folk devils of our age.
In fact, it was always unlikely that either of these passengers were terrorists. Much more likely is that these were desperate individuals trying to better their lives.
The facilitation of terrorist activity by the market in falsified travel documentation is rare. The real story is the ordinariness and everyday necessity of this market due to strict immigration and border controls. Common EU visa rules are applicable to nationals of 128 countries, including the majority of African and Asian countries and significant parts of Central America. Many of these are refugee-producing countries.
Further, EU countries require a special airport transit visa for nationals from countries producing high numbers of asylum seekers, including Iran. The reality for most refugees fleeing to Europe in search of safety is a life-threatening journey by sea or stowing away in transport containers. In 2011, at least 1,500 people perished attempting to cross the Mediterranean alone. Only a tiny minority of irregular migrants can afford the cost of a forged passport and flight ticket, the extortionate cost of these – about $1,000 for a European passport – is indicative of the desperation of those willing to pay.
Due to EU carrier sanctions it is almost impossible for migrants – whatever their motivation for moving, whether economic or in search of safety from war or persecution – to enter the EU in a regular manner. Carrier sanction regimes entail fining airlines and other transportation companies for bringing individuals into the EU who do not have the required documentation. Transporters are fined and designated as responsible for returning or paying the cost of detaining such persons. It is these border control regimes that should be subjected to scrutiny, rather than the phenomenon they create: “illegal immigration” facilitated through falsified documentation. Carrier sanctions together with visa regimes force some migrants into a situation where they have to obtain forged or stolen documentation in order to be able to travel.
In the wake of the disappearance of flight MH370, Interpol’s secretary general called for stricter security measures at borders. This, he says, would ward off speculation of terrorism in the event of flight tragedies. But shouldn’t common sense and decency be sufficient to deter such speculation? Even more stringent security measures will mean that asylum seekers will be unable to flee their countries. It is due to the absence of legal migration routes that many asylum seekers are forced to travel irregularly. A xenophobic response to the tragic disappearance of flight MH370 even before the facts are known is reckless and unseemly.