Kaliber 11 November 2007: Fake documents

The human smuggling from Iraq to Sweden is based on fake travel documents. The refugees have to pass several borders on their way to Sweden and if they are caught along the way most countries send them back immediately. Fake passports are therefore a prerequisite and thus make a lucrative business. Swedish investigative radio program Kaliber discloses the spread of forgerers and their skill. Even travel documents no one thought were possible to forge turn out to pose no problems for the forgerers.  

We’re on a street in Damascus as a man passes by with a thick bundle of passports in his hands.

One and a half million Iraqis have fled the violence to end up here, in the capital of Syria. They are too many for the town to handle. Almost everyone we meet is trying to get away. Many want to go to Sweden. They know that nine out of ten Iraqi refugees who make it to Sweden are allowed to stay.    

But the journey is long, difficult – and illegal. Every border must be crossed either in secret or under fake identity. If they are discovered when in a Schengen country the border guards will send them back, if the guards realize they are Iraqi refugees on their way to seek asylum. 

They therefore have to look like something else than Iraqi refugees.

And that is why there is a huge market for fake travel documents.

This is where the man in Damascus with the bundle of passports comes in.  

Several thousand Dollars for our passports

We ask the man what he is going to do with all the passports. He stops and asks where we are from. Negotiations ensue. The man wants to sell us Syrian passports, or buy one of our Swedish passports for 4 000 Dollars. Later the same evening a refugee offers us 12 000 Dollars for the same passport. 

It is obvious one can make big money on the desperation of the Iraqis. The trade with fake travel documents is big business.

Sargon’s trip

Sargon is one of the near 16 000 Iraqis who have sought asylum in Sweden this year alone.

- I left Baghdad because I am Christian and a barber. The Mujahideen threatened to kill me.

Sargon tells about his family’s way to Sweden. It is a complicated trip and a complicated story containing lots of fake documents which Sargon bought or bribed himself to so he could flee the violence in Baghdad. He tells us he was kidnapped by one of the many militias wreaking havoc in Baghdad. He and his family are safe for the moment but Sargon is still nervous when we met him, his pregnant wife and their little son somewhere in Sweden. 

He tells about their first attempt to escape and that they went to Greece first, where they ran out of money.

- I had no money left at all and decided to travel from Athens to Syria with a fake passport.

Cynical commerce

We follow Sargon’s pursuit for fake documents in order to expose how it is all handled and we will meet people who make money on the desperate flight of the Iraqis. We meet with smugglers and forgerers who tell us they are able to forge any document. And indeed, everything is forged – ID cards, foreign passports containing Swedish stay permits and Swedish EU passports as well. Some of the forged documents are done in such a skilled way that even the police cannot figure out how it is done. 

We try to meet with a forgerer

We come in contact with one of the middle hands after several attempts. We make an appointment with him in one of the many cafés in Sweden that function as a meeting place for Iraqi refugees.

We can call him Daniel. His position in the hierarchy is quite high, but he is still cautious. The persons he works for, the forgerers, often have connections with heavy criminals.

Many Iraqis know Daniel. It is him one needs to talk with for fake documents, and he forwards the order to the forgerers.  

I fix passports, driving licenses, just about whatever you need, he says.

- Who needs the forged documents?

- People who have problems, who need to travel from different countries to another country.

- And that is when they contact you?

- Not me, but my friends who solve most issues.

- Have you acted as an intermediary for forgerers?

- Yes, several times.

A large extent

Kerstin Högback is the Swedish Criminal Investigation Department expert on passport forgeries and she testifies to the fact that there are lots of fake documents in circulation.

- It is huge, the extent of the fake Iraqi documents.

- So most Iraqi documents are forged?

- There is a lot of forgery.

We try to find out ourselves how easy it can be to get hold of fake documents. We went to another intermediary and told him we are in need of a fake identity. We were told we had to have an Iraqi driving license. With such a license one can go on and get a passport in someone else’s name.

- It costs 1000 Swedish kronor, says the intermediary.

- How many days does it take?

- Maybe three days, when do you want it? If you want it then give me a photo of yourself.

The customs catch the nervous ones

On their escape routes the refugees must cross many borders where they need many different fake documents. The quality of the forgeries depends upon the quality of the security on each check point.

In order to get out of the Middle East you need an Iraqi passport with a Swedish stay permit, which is later switched for a passport or ID card from one of the EU countries who are part of the passport union called Schengen. There is no passport control in the Schengen countries. So any fake passports that are seized are not found by the passport control but by the customs, says Patrik Pålsson, responsible for such issues in Swedens Arlanda airport.

- One might say we catch them on a daily basis in our controls.

- What catches your attention?

- They are often nervous, they look like they are hiding something and that is when we want to take a closer look at them.

- What do you usually find?

- Many times they show us travel documents of varying quality, but they are not in line with who they really are.

- How can you see they are not authentic?

- Many times the quality is poor; otherwise we take help from the police. We forward the errand directly to the police if we suspect forged documents

Difficult to take in the whole picture

Kerstin Högback from the Criminal Investigation Department says the number of forged documents from Iraqis is too much to survey – everything is forged.  

- There are complete forgeries, that is passports that are authentic but belong to another person, so called look-alike passports.  

- The refugee looks like the person on the original picture?

- Exactly.

Fred Forsberg is an ID expert at the Migration office and he shows us fake papers of different kinds. 

These days almost all Iraqi ID paper are forged; birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, military papers, driving licenses, citizenship certificates and ID cards.

- How do you cope now when there is equipment for high quality printing in every store?

- We look at the serial number, if the number matches with the region in which it was supposedly issued. That is why we have Swedish – Arabic lists of numbers so we can read the serial number. 

Sargon is advised to lie

Sargon is so nervous about telling us about his story his wife had to write down their story on a piece of paper for him. 

- In Syria I met a smuggler who told me I should travel to Sweden because everyone is allowed to stay in Sweden, on the condition I do not tell the Swedes that I was in Greece before. If they know about Greece they would send me there, because it is the first asylum country I went to. The smuggler then told me exactly what to do. My brother had to apply for a passport for me in Iraq. He then went to the Syrian border to buy a stamp showing I had traveled from Iraq and directly to Syria. This way no one could see I had ever been to Greece. The border guards asked for too much money for the stamp so my brother found instead a man in Iraq who has a Syrian stamp. It cost him 100 Dollars. 

The embassy looks up the color and typeface

In the Swedish embassy in Damascus, Syria’s capital, we find Leif Ericsson, a man who sees many fake documents. He tells us what one should look for.

- You see this color, it is a little bit too bright in the background. Look at the typeface, the four is closed. Here it is open.

The Iraqi passports are made in different series. The first series after the fall of Saddam is called the S – passports. They were far too easy to forge and are no longer accepted as valid. Now they use the more secure G – passports.

But during our investigation we find out that even the G – passports are forged nowadays. The Swedish migration office seems to have known this but chosen not to hit the alarm button.

The G – passports are forged in several ways. Sometimes authentic passports are provided with fake stay permits and fake visas. And there are also complete forgeries, and the sort which is the most difficult to discover – blank passports which are stolen. They are fake passports made with authentic but stolen passport papers. 

- We discover them, especially the stolen blank passports, by looking at deviations, often in the color, says Leif Ericsson. The color is slightly different. We also look at the typeface, the numbers have a wrong typeface.

The smuggler brings passports

A smuggler in Sweden tells us there are no problems in getting hold of passports from the G – series. We told him we needed help getting a relative out of Baghdad.

- It is easy. I can arrange it, it is available. If he is in a lot of hurry he can pay 800 Dollars so he can get his passport very quickly.

- OK so he has to pay 800 Dollars to get the passport quickly?

- Yes.

- But is it an authentic passport?

- Yes, it is an authentic passport, it is a G – passport. It is no problem.

- Can he take a passport with another name?

- Yes, yes, it is …. I know it is OK. But he has to change ID card as well, at the same time. You cannot just change passport. He needs to change ID card as well. That is an extra cost of perhaps 100-120 Dollars. 

- So he must first apply for or buy an ID card, a fake ID card?

- Yes. So he can change his name.

- One can do this?

- Yes.

- Have you heard of someone who has done it?

- Yes, yes, it is easy. It is no problem.

Stay permits are hard currency

The Iraqi refugees who are allowed to stay in Sweden get a stay permit glued in their passports by the migration office. These stay permits are hard currency among forgerers and refugees. They take away the stay permit and glue it in another passport or they change the picture in the Iraqi passport, or, If there is a person resembling the person on the photo then they do not need to change anything, says Annika Vangård from the police department for refugee issues in the Swedish town of Malmö. 

- Yes, one of the problems concern foreign passports with Swedish stay permits and the fact that these passports can be used indefinitely despite that they are reported lost by their owners. We regard this as a big problem.

- Do you have any such examples?

- Yes, we have an errand in which a mother and daughter reported their Iraqi passports as lost. Their passports were then used for travels from and to Sweden during two years. And we assume it was not the daughter and mother who traveled with the passports during the two years. 

- How do you know that someone did use his passport?

- We can see that from the register at the airport, the Swedish stay permit in the passport is registered in connection with travels.

- But how can such a passport be used by a person other than the original owner?

- Look alike passports. The passports I am talking about are perfect for someone with a similar appearance to be used for travels from and to Sweden.

Yosuf gave away his passport

Yosuf testifies to the fact that there are many in Sweden who sell or give away their passports to refugees in order to facilitate their travel. He is one of the many Iraqi refugees in Sweden. He reluctantly reveals that he gave away his own passport.

-  It happened once that I sold my passport.

- Here in Sweden?

- Yes, to smugglers. The money I received for the passport I used to send to my family. So they could support themselves in Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of passports adrift

Several police men confirm to us that many Swedish passports are adrift. We encounter difficulties as we try to find out exactly how many passports are adrift. We meet with Stefan Tilling, who has the prime responsibility for legal issues concerning passports at the Swedish Criminal Investigation Department. He tells us one cannot find out the number of passports. It would require weeks of special search with computers.

- The number is huge and we cannot give you any definite number.

- Do you have any clue as to how many?

- We have our suspicions; it is several hundred thousand of passports. But as I said, we cannot give you any exact number.

- Why don’t you find out exactly how many passports are adrift?

- Our computer systems are somewhat old and it stops us in our work. Each police department owns their own database. That is why it is difficult to search on a national level.

- But shouldn’t you be interested to know how many passports it is?

- Absolutely, it would be very interesting to find out and I look forward to the day we get there.

But when we begin to phone around to the different police departments in Sweden we come up with a figure – 200 000 lost passports. That means 200 000 Swedish passports adrift. These passports are still valid and can be used in other countries even if they are blocked in Sweden. 

This year alone 37 315 Swedish passports have been reported lost or stolen.

The owners of these passports have naturally applied for new passports. In the city of Gothenburg a man has applied for twelve passports in six months.

Laptops and memory sticks make new passports

Daniel, the intermediary at the café, knows everything about the process, how the forgeries are made.

- There are many gangs working with this, but if you are looking for a really good job then you have only a few to turn to. You cannot see any difference in the passports they forge; they pass any security, everything. 

Many times the forgerers are computer experts with advanced equipment, says Daniel. The police agree.

The smugglers and the forgerers work mostly in networks where you buy what you need by the person who can supply it. The computers are advanced laptops kept in briefcases and exchanged between the involved persons. The passport forgeries are kept on memory sticks and handed over from one person to the other in the network. Someone has the necessary information on the identity to be produced. Someone else produces the passport or the ID card. Another one has the equipment needed; it may be a regular printer or an advanced offset printer costing hundreds of thousands of Swedish Kronor. In the final phase there is someone who does the binding and another one has the necessary stamps and holograms.

Swedish passports as well

- The ones making the passports make a lot of money, says Daniel.

- How much is a lot of money?

- Between 20 000 to 25 000 kronor per passport or drivers license.

- Swedish passports?

- Yes, everything is possible. It is often Swedish passports because they work here in Sweden.

- Even the new type of Swedish passports?

- Yes, it is no problem; you get the passport you order. It is no problem.

-  Have you seen such a passport?

- Yes, I had one last week.

And now the police have found large amounts of forged Swedish EU passports. They belong to the series from 2003 which were described as impossible to forge. But now there is proof there are person who are experts on forging those as well and who have mastered the chemical process needed to forge these passports. The EU passports have a front cover that is made up of a series of plastic pieces melted together, each piece with its own pattern and specific information. In order to forge this kind of passports we need to separate the plastic pieces from each other and keep the pattern intact at the same time. Kerstin Högback from Sweden’s Criminal Investigative Department knows the forgerers can do this. 

- The forged passports are of very good quality, the surface contains the necessary patterns. They change the information inside the passport, photos, name etc. That is why they are so deceitful.

-  The Swedish passports that are forged, are they complete forgeries or have they used an authentic passport which they later changed?

- No, they are not complete forgeries; it is authentic passports which are manipulated. It is only the page containing the personal data that is manipulated in a very skilful manner. 

- When did they start to show up?

- A couple of years ago, when we started receiving many Iraqi refugees seeking asylum. The persons caught with those forged passports are almost exclusively Iraqis.  

No secure passports

There are discussions about revoking this passport series because the forgeries are done in such a perfect way and very difficult to discover. But Stefan Tilling at the Criminal Investigation Department says there are no safe passports.

- The day a country issues a new type of passport the world of forgerers begins work on the new passport. This does not only happen to Sweden but to all countries, more or less. Then you have the credibility attached to the travel document itself. A Swedish passport has high credibility compared to a passport from a country which does not enjoy high credibility in border check points around the world.  

- So a Swedish passport is hard currency for a forgerer?

- It is very precious, yes.

Sargons fate

As long as people need to leave Iraq and as long as that is not doable in a legal way, the market for fake travel documents will prosper. Sargon is one of those who have bought almost every kind of forged travel documents in the hope of bringing his family to safety.

- I bought forged passports for 1300 Dollars each and then Greek stay permits that cost 400 Dollars each. I took the forged passports and went to the airport where we paid for help to pass the check points. We made it and flew to Sweden.

But despite all efforts, all the money he spent, all loans, everything he sold and sacrificed for the forged passports and the fact that nine out of ten Iraqis seeking asylum in Sweden are allowed to stay; he and his family are not allowed to stay.

The first thing which takes place in the Swedish migration office is the taking of finger prints – and comparing them with the databases of finger prints which all Schengen countries have access to. And that is when they found out about Sargon’s finger print which was taken during that first escape attempt – to Greece.

That is why Sargon and his pregnant wife and their little son must go back to Iraq.

Sweden gives asylum to 90% of the Iraqi refugees.

For Greece it is 0%

Reporters: Nuri Kino and Marie-Jeanette Löfgren

This programme is one part in the series about the refugee invasion from Iraq. The two others were broadcasted November 4, 2007 and November 18, 2007.