341,956 blank EU travel documents in criminal hands

A forged stamp bearing the Dutch immigration police's coat of arms and several blatant spelling errors.

By Joep Dohmen

A classified Dutch government report has revealed that criminals stole 341,956 passports, identity cards, visa stickers and drivers' licences from European government facilities since 2000.

Brazilian football star Leonardo Santiago was caught red-handed in 2000 when his Portuguese passport proved to be a fake. The 17-year-old darling of Rotterdam’s Feyenoord team had thus been able to circumvent the strict regulations that apply to all non EU-citizens playing for European football clubs.

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The story is by no means unique in European football. In recent years, law enforcement officials in France, Italy and Spain have caught dozens of 'Leonardos', playing for clubs like Inter Milan, Lazio Roma, AS Monaco and Saint-Etienne. Teams and players alike benefited from the fraudulent documents. In France and Italy, regulations only allow clubs to field a limited number of non-EU players. In the Netherlands, the same foreign nationals can only be signed if they are paid at least 503,000 euros annually

Fake passports: the source

The question remains how players get a hold of fake passports. Leonardo got his Portuguese passport from his agent in 1999. A police investigation showed the document was part of a batch of 200 blank passports stolen from the Portuguese consulate in Zurich earlier that same year.

The burglary of the Portuguese consulate is just one of many mentioned in a confidential Dutch government report published in 2000. The report, entitled Report on Security norms for Diplomatic Posts, lists numerous European embassies and consulates that were robbed around the turn of the century by Eastern and Central European “crime syndicates”, bagging large numbers of passports and visa stickers in the process.

The gangs “occasionally used extreme violence” to gain access to the “poorly secured” diplomatic posts, the report states. The gangster were privy to “know-how and techniques used by former intelligence agencies”.

According to another overview provided by the Dutch foreign ministry in Luxembourg alone, hundreds of blank passports and visa stickers were stolen from the embassies of the Netherlands, Spain, Austria and Portugal between December 1998 and the spring of 2000. The same happened in Vienna, Geneva, Lausanne, Brussels and other locations. The crime spree was kept under wraps at the time, but the thefts were recently confirmed by the foreign ministry at NRC Handelsblad’s request.

Sought after by terrorists

Football players aren’t the only people interested in blank travel documents. Stolen Belgian passports were used by Abdessatar Dahmane and an accomplice in September 2001 to pose as journalists and gain access to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, and kill him in a suicide bombing.

The confidential foreign ministry report states stolen passports are also used to open bank accounts, conduct (real estate) deals or travel. For human traffickers, illegal immigrants and criminals, a blank EU passport can give unfettered access not only to the issuing country, but to the Schengen Area, a group of currently 25 EU-countries that make up the European customs union treaty of the same name. While its outer borders are tightly guarded, passports are rarely checked after holders enter the Schengen area since the treaty went into effect in 1995. Visa stickers are used by human traffickers who sell them to people seeking asylum in the EU or looking to stay there illegally.

To combat the abuse of stolen documents, customs offices protecting the Schengen area’s outer borders have the so called Schengen Information System (SIS) at their disposal. The SIS lists not only all persons and vehicles wanted by law enforcement in countries party to the Schengen treaty, but also contains data on all blank travel documents that were stolen or went missing from government facilities there. According to the Dutch police, the database contains 341,956 documents in all. However the SIS is not consulted with every entry into the EU.

Money to be made

Trade in blank documents is big business. “Criminals, human traffickers and illegal asylum seekers are willing to pay increasingly high prices for travel documents and passports,” the report states. Depending on the country and the type of document sought, prices are said to vary from 500 to 11,000 euros. “The damages incurred can amount to at least a hundred times the prices paid for these documents.” A couple of years ago, Dutch customs officials estimated that in the Netherlands alone, fraud committed using forged proof of identity cost three billion euros annually.

Since the break ins a decade ago, embassies and consulates have stopped carrying large stocks of blank travel documents.

Dutch municipal offices have also stopped stocking large numbers of blank travel documents, forcing passport thieves to look for new targets. In Manchester a white van was robbed by unknown assailants in July, 2008. The unsecured vehicle was transporting to an airport 3,000 blank passports and visa stickers destined for British diplomatic posts.

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