Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Passport-Gate: Turkey’s Brewing Uyghur Passport Scandal

Yesterday I speculated that the plethora of fraudulent Turkish passports showing up in the hands of Uyghur refugees could be attributed to the connivance of Turkish government elements.  The passports, after all, are smart-chipped biometric documents (in order to satisfy EU requirements as part of the Turkish admission campaign), and seem virtually impossible to forge without the participation of some quasi-official actor.

I should also add that Malaysia, the primary channel for Uyghur refugees traveling to Turkey on faked documents, is also the world’s pioneer in biometric passports, having instituted the system in 1998.  It is also a primary channel for Uyghurs seeking refuge in Turkey.  It would seem unlikely that human trafficking of Uyghurs would rely on trying to sneak a non-biometric Turkish passport past Malaysian immigration and emigration (although, it must be admitted that Malaysia, with two million illegal immigrants, is suspected of having a few holes in its border security game.  Notoriously, one of the passengers on the vanished flight MH 370 turned out to be an identity thief traveling on a stolen Austrian biometric passport).

In any case, the record appears mixed.  Some Uyghurs who purchased their passports in SE Asia, got to Malaysia, and then tried to fly out to Turkey reported that their passports were identified as forged.

It is unclear whether this was a problem with the biometrics or lack thereof, some other forensic clue such as a suspicious or incomplete travel record, or simply the travelers’ inability to speak English, Turkish, or for that matter any other language intelligible to the Malay border authorities.  These refugees were detained inside Malaysia but ultimately allowed to proceed to Turkey through the intercession of the Turkish embassy.  Other Uyghurs, as we shall see, acquired passports that, indisputably, appear totally genuine.

As the reported number of Uyghurs fleeing the PRC and seeking to exploit Turkish passports and good offices swelled into the high hundreds, the PRC mounted a counter-offensive.  It exposed a scheme to sell Turkish passports to Uyghurs inside the PRC.  In a telling detail, post sale and pre-delivery the passports had to be mailed to Turkey, presumably to create the biometric record on the smart chip to match the customer.  

Turkey’s police chief visited the PRC in early February to smooth things over and promise closer cooperation on the “human trafficking” front.  Subsequently, Turkey backed away from an official call to Thailand to send on 154 stranded Uyghurs to Turkey; the Uyghurs are currently on hunger strike protesting their treatment and imploring Turkish assistance.

I saw an unconfirmed report on Twitter today that Indonesia had repatriated two Uyghurs to the PRC, joining Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Afghanistan on the list of countries that have apparently obliged the PRC on this issue.

Certainly, there’s the possibility that the Turkish authorities have knowledge, and maybe guilty foreknowledge, of what’s being done with what are supposed to be highly secure and closely controlled documents.  I would not be surprised if, behind the scenes, there is not a depressing and degrading ritual going on, where contrite Turkish intelligence is handing over a list of faked passports to Asian security departments, and asking that the investigation/apprehension/disposition of the document holders be conducted with a minimum of publicity.

Unlike what’s happening, for instance, in Indonesia at this time concerning the Sulawesi Four.

Last September, Indonesia detained four men who had Turkish passports and claimed to be Turks but, it transpired, were unable to speak Turkish.  The four are still insisting on their Turkish nationality, but are suspected of being Uyghurs.  They will go on trial in a month or so on the charge of attempting to join Muslim insurrectionist and Indonesia’s most-wanted, Santoso, and his Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (which, according to its media wing, “MIT Press” declared allegiance to ISIS on July 1, 2014).  During the trial, presumably, their nationality will get sorted out to Indonesia’s satisfaction.

In February 2015, the head of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency, Saut Usman, visited Beijing and stated that it was “likely” that the suspects would be extradited to the PRC.

The PRC has publicly linked the detainees to the Kunming railway station massacre.  It is possible that this is simply PRC propaganda meant to demonize all Uyghur refugees in the service of the PRC’s campaign to browbeat its neighbors into returning detained Uyghurs.

It’s also possible that it is true (some attributed the Kunming massacre to a group of would-be emigres who were frustrated by their inability to cross the border into Vietnam and mounted a suicidal attack instead) and this particular bunch was able to escape and followed its genuine militant inclinations to extremist camps in Indonesia instead of the path to cultural and religious self-expression and fulfillment in Turkey.

It should be said that Central Sulawesi, where the suspects were apprehended, is a remote corner of the Indonesian archipelago (it’s the island that looks like a starfish running into Borneo), apparently with little that that might attract the interest of a Xinjiang-born and oasis-raised Uyghur refugee save Santoso’s terrorist group.

In any case, something of a black mark and embarrassment for Turkey if its passports implicated in a terrorist narrative involving both Indonesia and the PRC.

So let’s look at what’s been reported about those Turkish passports.

On September 22, shortly after the four suspects were apprehended (apparently for the crime of looking suspicious driving around in a car, trying to run away when stopped, and then having absolutely no good story about who they were and what they were doing), Indonesian National Police (Polri) spokesman Brigadier General Boy Rafli Amar told reporters:

[P]olice are waiting for information from the Turkish embassy regarding the originality of the passports that police confiscated from the foreign nationals. If the passports are false, Amar said, this would strengthen Polri suspicions of Indonesian terrorism receiving international support.

"It's impossible for a passport to be falsified like that. We will coordinate with Thai and Malaysian police if that proves to be the case. There are certainly [foreign] players involved," Amar said.

"We want to confirm whether the passports were registered or not. We are waiting for a written response from the Turkish embassy," Amar explained.

He noted that this was important in order to determine whether there was an international false passport syndicate that was making it easy for foreigners to travel between countries.

"This is to confirm whether the passports used to enter Indonesia were false, and [if so] who the syndicate for making these false passports is. We don't want lots of people coming here in this way. This is troubling, so we must cooperate to stop the production of false passports," he said.

Alert readers will note that the likelihood that these are forged passports i.e. created by some private sector criminal goombah is vanishingly small.  These are genuine documents put in the hands of people who are apparently not supposed to have them.

AFP reported that the passports had been acquired at a cost of US$1000 per in Bangkok.

The passports are indistinguishable from the real thing, so the only way to get to the bottom is to get Turkey to ‘fess up, as the National Police Command’s spokesperson indicated:

Riyanto said based on the initial results of investigation it was found that information they gave was different from data in the documents they carried.

“So, we are still interrogating them further. As an example one of the suspects said he is 19 years old but according to his passport he is 27 years old,” he said.

“We are still studying whether the information that they gave is true or not. And if they are really Turkish their departure from that country was not registered,” he said.

In view of that he said the police would coordinate with the immigration office and Turkish embassy to confirm the validity of their passports.
“We suspect that they have used fake passports. They had claimed to have come from Turkey, but no record exists of their departure from that country,” said Agus Riyanto.

Turkish embassy to investigate their background," national police spokesman Ronny Sompie told AFP.

In other words, not only are the passports authentic; the information they contain--presumably the biometrics--are apparently close enough that it can’t be proved that the document holders are in fact not the people their documents say they are.

Puzzling problem.  Who’s got an answer?

It’s interesting to speculate what nervous finger drumming, thoughtful tea sipping, and/or defensive desk pounding this state of affairs may elicit in the concerned Turkish departments.  But apparently at this point Turkey is still letting the defendants stew in their own juice, neither confirming nor denying that they are aliens improperly holding Turkish passports.

As to “passport-gate”, it appears unlikely that third party actors would possess the wherewithal to encode and properly encrypt the biometric chips.  If the passport-faking goes down to the chip (which, in the scheme uncovered by the PRC, it apparently did), it would seem to me the only question is whether the suppliers are merely a venal ring of greedy bureaucrats; Turkish intelligence; or some weird, ad hoc combination of the two, some deniable operation to serve up passports to Uyghurs in the service of Turkish ambitions to act as mother and father to the Turkic peoples of the world.

And it would also seem to me that this has the makings of a scandal and embarrassment for the Erdogan government.

It’s bad enough if Turkish official document controls are so lax that freebooters can encode and sell high-tech biometric passports by the dozens if not hundreds or thousands.  That’s not going to please the EU which, after all, mandates the biometric passport system in order to achieve a certain level of security, control, and accountability.  

If, on the other hand, it is suspected that some quasi-official Turkish operation is issuing authentic documents to facilitate the cross-border travel of individuals who might be persecuted refugees but also embittered exiles looking for extremist havens, training, and support, well that’s not going to please anyone.

Not the PRC, not the EU, and not the US.


suzannedk said...

The passport embroglio could also have been easily set up by a major intelligence service in order to embarrass Erdogan who has made a deal, a big one, with Russia's Putin, an US/UK No No!

Xinxi said...

As extremist Muslim men seem to be the new 21th century lansquenets, who really ordered the passports. Wasn't Washington deeply involved into anti-PRC terrorism/fighting in Tibet, too?

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