ROME — Europe’s trade in forged and stolen passports is so out of control that the U.S. has given five EU countries until next week to act or risk losing visa-free travel rights.
The threat comes in response to growing alarm over the rising number of lost and stolen documents in the EU, which has doubled in five years. The number of forged passports in the Middle East is also a rising concern. Interpol has data on 250,000 stolen or lost Syrian and Iraqi passports, including blank documents.
American and European security officials speak of an “epidemic” created by a spike in demand from asylum-seekers — and from terrorists like those who carried out the Paris attacks last November, two of whom were carrying counterfeit documents.
In the aftermath of Paris, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security became so worried about the implications for screening travelers to America that it gave France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Greece a February 1 deadline to fix “crucial loopholes” or lose access to the U.S. visa waiver program. The program allows about 20 million people per year from 38 countries, most of them in Europe, to enter the United States for business or pleasure without a visa.
Next week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will report to President Barack Obama on how these countries have progressed.
On the issue of fraudulent passports, U.S. officials see a particular problem with two of the five: Greece and Italy.
The importance of counterfeit documents “as a facilitator in the movement of terrorists” is nothing new, said Interpol’s director of operational support and analysis, Michael O’Connell, pointing to the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report in the U.S..