In the immediate aftermath of the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines MH370 Flight, an awful lot of effort, resources and precious column space were wasted on verifying the antecedents of the two Iranian passengers-- who had managed to slip through the immigration check-- holding stolen Austrian and Italian passports.
Even though, the theft of the Austrian and Italian passports had been listed on the Interpol’s Stolen and Travel Documents (SLTD) database, the Malaysian authorities did not access it at the time of the immigration check.
And the scenario can easily happen here as well since India has not agreed to the conditions for accessing the Interpol’s massive database.
“We are not connected to the Interpol’s SLTD database,” confirmed a government official.
New Delhi has been part of the Interpol’s efforts to devise standard operating procedures for countries to access the real-time database, but has never agreed to be part of the international network. The main reason for this is that the Indian authorities are not confident that the information provided from the national database will be accurate.
“Basically, the issue that was raised was what would happen if the information that we provided and which was integrated with the SLTD turned out to be wrong. Who would then take the responsibility?” said the official, who was clued-in on the discussions in this regard within the Indian establishment.
Set up in 2002, the SLTD database now has 40 million entries from over 160 countries. Last year, the total number of searches made was over 800 million, which resulted in 60,000 ‘hits’--that is, it was found that a passport or other travel documents could be bogus.
In 2006, the first meeting of the advisory committee of 13 countries, including India, was held to devise the standard operational policy and procedures (SOPP) for use of the SLTD in 2006-7, which was accepted in 2007.
As per the SOPP, the participating country had to be responsible for the accuracy of the data linked to the database and also update the information on a real-time basis, as soon as its own national databases are updated.
This has been one of the hurdles for the Indian officials to integrate with the SLTD, as they accept that even the national database could be riddled with errors, perhaps due to mistakes at time of entering the data.
The national database of stolen passports has about 40,000 to 50,000 entries. “There is also not enough segregation done within the database. It has not been weeded out for years,” said an official. And the national database needs to be reorganised before it can be integrated with the SLTD database, which has its own categorisation.
Even if one number or alphabet in the entry for the travel document is inaccurate, it could create immense problems for innocent passengers, whose travel will be red-flagged at airports across the world. The resources of both the country of the port of entry and the country of origin would then be diverted to find out if the ‘hit’ was right.
“As per the procedure, the response of the ‘hit’ from the country of origin has to be made within one hour. We don’t have the processes to do it so fast,” said an official.The whole procedure of a passenger being taken out from a routine immigration procedure and taken into custody and interrogated by a foreign country on suspicion of travelling on a fake passport will of course be a traumatic one.
“An innocent passenger in such a case has the right to apply for claim from the Indian government. So, most of the discussions around the SLTD revolved around who would take the responsibility for the accuracy of the database,” said an official.
Sources asserted that even if India were linked to the SLTD, it will not increase the time needed for the travellers to pass through an immigration checkpoint. “The search is based on number indexing, it will not go through the entire database but will narrowly focus on certain categories, starting with nationality,” he said.
With the Centre implementing a high-tech Immigration, Visa and Foreigner’s Registration & Tracking (IVFRT) system, there had been talk about integrating the border checkpoints with the SLTD database.
But no decision has been taken on this yet. “We have to see if the MH370 experience will wake up people and make them take the difficult decision,” said an Indian government official.