The presence of two men traveling on fake passports on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane initially seemed like an indication that terrorism might have been involved. But it now appears to have been an example of something far more common — two Iranian men traveling to Europe on forged passports from Thailand, according to The New York Times.
The 19-year-old Iranian passenger, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, who was using a stolen Austrian passport, was traveling to Germany, where he was to meet his mother, said Gen. Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police.
“We are in contact with his mother,” Bakar said at a news conference.
Interpol identified the second Iranian traveler as Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, who used a stolen Italian passport. Interpol released a photograph of the men boarding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the same time.
Thousands of Iranians seeking to leave their home country wait in Asian countries with friendly visa regulations to make the second part of their migration to the West or to Australia. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are popular jumping-off points for middle-class Iranians who arrive on tourist visas and are helped by local travel agents and by people-traffickers to travel to the West.
Getting an Iranian passport isn’t always that easy for Iranian citizens, and they are frequently forged, but even with one, options can be limited for travelers from the country. Iran is ranked 86th out of 93 on Henley & Partners’ travel freedom index, which looks at visa restrictions on travelers with different nationalities.
Ironically, Israeli passports, which are considered easy to forge but allow a wide range of visa-free travel in Asia and Europe, seem to be one of the more popular options for Iranians looking to emigrate. Seven Iranians with forged Israeli passports were arrested in Vancouver last summer. They had been planning to emigrate.
Thailand, where the two men reportedly bought their passports, has become a global hub for the production of fake travel documents. The documents in question here were apparently stolen at the beach resort of Phuket within the last two years.
The AP reported in 2005:
• More rare and expensive are the lost or stolen passports — some of which have been sold by tourists to black market buyers. They are used by criminals to cross borders, where immigration officials’ eyes are better trained to spot fakes.
• Many of these passports are sold by or stolen from the more than 10 million tourists who visit Thailand each year.
• One 24-year-old French tourist said he was offered $240 by a clean-cut Iranian man in his 30s staying at the same guesthouse he was at on Bangkok’s Khao San Road — the popular backpacker district that police say is a major source of black market passports.
• And some Westerners will sell their passports to get quick cash, and then they’ll say it was stolen, so it’s hard to crack down.
In 2010 Thai police arrested Pakistani national Muhammed Ather “Tony” Butt, who had allegedly operated a passport-forging gang for more than a decade and was linked to terrorism groups, including those responsible for the 2004 Madrid train bombing, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is accused in involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.
A spokesman for Iran’s parliament called reports about the two Iranians with illegal passports on the Malaysian plane “psychological warfare” and an attempt to pin the blame on Muslim countries, but in this case, authorities seem to be strongly leaning against the possibility that the men were in any way involved in terrorism.
Like thousands of others, they seem to have been migrants attempting a dangerous journey who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This article was written by Joshua Keating for the opinion page of Chicago Tribune on March 13,2014.Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.
The Iran Project is not responsible for the content of quoted articles.