A disturbing trade in stolen British passports is exposed today.
Swiped by criminal gangs in Western Europe, they are flown to Istanbul or Athens for sale by people smugglers.
Security experts said owning a genuine British passport was like ‘winning the lottery’ for jihadis and criminals – allowing them to slip across borders undetected.
In response to the Mail’s findings, MPs called for action to address Britain’s ‘shocking vulnerability’ to potentially dangerous illegals.
Our investigation reveals that British citizens are selling their passports to be bought by migrants of similar appearance.
And fake EU identity cards that can be used to enter the UK are also being made to order within three days in the Balkans.
The Mail bought a UK passport for £2,500 ($3,314) from Abu Ahmad, a people-smuggling kingpin in Turkey. It had been stolen from a Milton Keynes man working in Brussels.
It was one of five passports that Ahmad, who is known as ‘The Doctor’, offered to the Mail.
The others included one stolen from an Oxford graduate visiting Paris and another taken from a 28-year-old Manchester woman who was on holiday in Spain.
Ahmad boasted that seven in ten of his clients succeed in duping immigration staff and making it to the UK.
He is on bail while he appeals against an eight-year sentence for spiriting thousands of migrants into Europe, including suspected jihadis. At its peak, his ‘business’ was bringing in £110,000 ($145,849) a month.
Europol, an EU police agency, warned yesterday that people smugglers operating in Turkey and Greece were ‘frequent’ offenders in the trade in black market documents, which is an ‘important enabler’ of organised crime.
Ahmad said all the passports he sold were genuine – otherwise they would be no use at border control.
They are either stolen or sold by their owners, who agree not to report them as missing for a few months, by which time they have been used by Ahmad’s customers.
He said: ‘Most British passports are stolen. Except if the passport was in the name of someone Arabic or Pakistani or something, that could have been sold.’
Ahmad said he had no qualms about profiting from stolen passports and, despite boasting he has smuggled thousands of people into Britain, insisted he was certain none of them were jihadis or criminals.
But another Syrian immigrant in Turkey told the Mail at least two people Ahmad helped get into Europe were known Islamists operating in Damascus.
The German authorities were alerted about them after their arrival, he said.
Interpol, an international police agency, has a stolen and lost travel documents database, known as SLTD, which it says was searched more than 1.2billion times in the first nine months of 2016, providing 115,000 ‘hits’.
But on its website, it admits: ‘Interpol is not automatically notified of all passport thefts occurring worldwide, and the SLTD database is not connected to national lists of stolen or lost passports.
‘Despite the potential availability of the SLTD database, not all countries systematically search the database to determine whether an individual is using a fraudulent passport.’
In 2014, the head of the agency said just four in ten passports used for international flights were checked against the database.
Labour MP John Woodcock, a member of the Commons home affairs committee, said: ‘At a time when several hundred potentially highly dangerous jihadis have fled when Islamic State has been deposed it’s highly alarming to learn that this way of entering the UK illegally seems to be so readily available.’
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said: ‘Criminals who capitalise on the vulnerability of tourists and then profit off refugees and immigrants in desperate need of help must not be allowed to operate so freely.’
David Lowe, a former Special Branch counter-terrorism officer now based at Leeds Beckett University, said: ‘For terrorists and criminals getting a new passport is like winning the lottery.
‘It’s a significant concern with fighters coming from Islamic State or returning British fighters. Once you get in with somebody else’s passport you are very difficult to trace.’
Immigration minister Caroline Nokes said: ‘One hundred per cent of passports are inspected at the border.
‘Border Force officers are rigorously trained to prevent the holders of fraudulent documents from entering the country and between 2010 and March 2018, we denied entry to over 144,000 people.
‘Immigration Enforcement constantly monitors and identifies emerging threats in relation to the production and supply of false travel documents, including the use of the internet to facilitate the trade in passports and identity cards.
‘We have a range of interventions to target the criminals involved, including criminal prosecution of crime groups in the UK and overseas.’
Just 72 hours after putting out a request for a British passport we secured a meeting with a people smuggler who offered us five.
Abu Ahmad, who is known as ‘The Doctor’, used to operate openly among fellow Syrian migrants hoping to reach to Western Europe.
However, since being put on the Interpol wanted list, the former heart surgeon has gone to ground and regularly changes his phone and home to evade the attention of the authorities.
After negotiating with an intermediary, he agreed to meet us at our room at the Istanbul Grand Hyatt and tell his story.
He insisted his face should be disguised, and made it very clear our contact would suffer if the deal was broken.
The stocky 40-year-old bristled when asked if he was worried that jihadis might be among the thousands of people he had helped smuggle into Europe.
And he pointedly asked the intermediary: ‘Are the people from your side solid or not?’
Relaxing a little, he showed us the passport he was selling and explained: ‘I got hold of this through people who bring us European passports – legitimate ones that haven’t been toyed with. Most of them come from Greece.’
He said he normally chooses around 15 from a range of 100 passports, selecting those that most look like his clients.
‘I have other contacts who supply passports and all are European,’ he said. ‘Some are Danish, some are from Sweden.’
He says gangs operate around Europe, possibly including the UK, stealing passports and couriering them back to people smugglers.
Ahmad said: ‘All passports that get stolen, get sold. The passport trade in Europe is spreading.
'A passport is expensive, its price is high. Most of the passports we get are German, French and British.’
Ahmad sells 15 to 20 passports a month about five of which are British. ‘It’s a strong passport, the British one,’ he said.
Because of extra security measures surrounding direct flights from Turkey to UK, buyers of British passports are told to first go to France and from there fly to Britain.
‘Out of every ten at the airport, seven make it,’ he said.
‘There are people that get caught the first time in the airport. We’ll try again with them after four to five days.
‘But many make it the first time. This goes back to how the person looks, how strong they are, their personality – if they know the language, that all affects how easy it is to move.
'The passport as well, if it’s legitimate, if the person looks like the picture, that all plays a role.’
Ahmad offers three tiers of service.
The cheapest, passport only, starts at £2,500 ($3,314) leaving the buyer to ‘sort himself out’ and try to reach a European Union country alone.
For an extra £1,300 ($1,723) he arranges a Turkish entry stamp and pays off corrupt officials so that immigration records show the client had legitimately arrived in Turkey. The process takes ten days.
The full-service package costs £7,000 ($9,281).
Ahmad says: ‘It is a huge amount, but I arrange everything to help them leave.
'I book him a room in a hotel, I get them food, I get them a passport and entrance stamp and then when they leave they have to pay the money.
‘Many people have never been to an airport before. The young man will check in for him, will guide him to security, then we’ll explain to him over the phone where to go until he reaches the gate.
‘We’d have already explained to him any time he talks to us he should delete everything. Every time he contacts us, he has to delete it all from his phone.’
Those making the trip on a fraudulent passport have a choice: either to pass through immigration control on arrival or claim asylum.
Ahmad said: ‘If he looks a lot like the passport picture and he looks decent, he can land with it and pass through in a European airport.’
If the client is planning to apply for asylum on arrival, he is told to go to the toilet on the plane and tear up the passport.
‘We explain to him that once he arrives at the requested country, he shouldn’t hand himself in or leave immediately. He should hang around in transit for two to three hours, then he can go hand himself in or leave the airport,’ said Ahmad.
‘We’d have already told him to not bring up that he came from Turkey. He should say he came from a different country. Egypt, Beirut, any other country besides Turkey.’
Ahmad, a father of three, is a Palestinian-Syrian who studied medicine in Damascus and worked as heart doctor in the city’s Al Bassel Hospital before moving to Aleppo.
He fled his homeland two years after the civil war broke out in 2011.
‘On our way to Greece we sank in the ocean,’ he said. ‘I spent 11 hours swimming and 140 people died. One of my friends drowned.
‘The Turks caught us and saved us and brought us back here. I tried hard to leave for five to six months but it wouldn’t work for me.
'People started to know me, my friends and acquaintances, that I’ve been living in Turkey for a while.
‘They want to migrate, so they’d call me and say we want to leave, what do you advise us?
‘They trusted me because I am I doctor. And since then I started to work in this field. It happened coincidentally.’
Despite living in Turkey for five years Ahmad does not speak a word of the language – or any English.
All his dealings are in Arabic, meaning he is unable to practise medicine in his new home.
‘I can work here but there are conditions,’ he said. ‘I have to get the equivalent of my degree certificate. The language needs to be there and I didn’t learn the language.
'And I came here to leave. I’m not here to work, I’m here to go to Europe.’
He began trafficking in the coastal town of Mersin, in south-west Turkey, where he led a gang of 37, had contacts across Europe, and regularly paid off police with bribes.
He helped people on to boats, who would then be picked up by ships operated by the bigger smugglers and taken to Italy.
As the money rolled in, Ahmad’s ambitions grew.
He decided to invest in shipping containers to provide the complete service, often transporting up to 1,000 people at a time from Mersin to Italy.
He said: ‘We used to buy most of the ships from Cyprus and put them in international waters and get passengers onto them from or five small boats twenty miles in.’
After loading them onto the ship, they would sail for four days until they reached the Italian coast.
‘In Italy, we used to tell the Red Cross that there’s a ship sinking and then the Red Cross went to pick up the people,’ Ahmad said.
‘Or if the ships were good and didn’t sink, someone from the Red Cross would go and drive it.
‘By that point the captain would have mixed in with the immigrants to hide and they would say that the captain had run away.’
One of Ahmad’s first ships, the Ezadeen, created international headlines in January 2015.
A ‘ghost ship’, it was found carrying hundreds of migrants after apparently being abandoned by its captain in dangerous seas off southern Italy.
One of the migrants raised the alarm using a radio on board, telling coastguards: ‘We’re without crew, we’re heading toward the Italian coast and we have no one to steer.’
A spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration said at the time: ‘This takes the smuggling game to a whole new level.’
Ahmad’s mass-scale trafficking came to an end when one of his ships was seized by rival smugglers, costing him a million dollars and leaving him with huge debts to other criminals.
An investigation by German police saw him put on the Interpol wanted list and he was caught in a dawn swoop on his home in Mersin in 2016.
He recalled: ‘At 6am, there was knocking at the door. I opened for the police.
‘He asked for my passport. He focused on my picture and told me to get dressed. He handcuffed me, and we went outside and saw five cars.
'My interrogation lasted two days, then they took me to court.’
Ahmad said they arrested ten of his gan
The loss of his ship and the police investigation meant he had to move to the city, but it did not stop him working: ‘I have continued to people smuggle, but more secretly. More carefully. I stay out of the picture.
‘I don’t know if the police know. I have no idea honestly. But for sure they’re watching me. I try to change my numbers regularly and change my whereabouts regularly.’
The change in circumstances means Ahmad is now making around £3,500 ($4,640) a month – which is still ten times the average monthly salary in Turkey.
To maintain his network of contacts, he travels widely using an Omani passport and has recently visited North Africa.
After our meeting with him, he was due to travel to Libya and then to Canada. ‘Every time I travel I use a stolen passport,’ he said, smiling.
‘I have never had problems travelling on a stolen passport.’
g of 37 in the crackdown, including his German henchman, but the rest managed to escape.
It turned out the police had been monitoring Ahmad for some time and recording his conversations on 140 CDs.
He was held for four months before being released on bail while the investigation into people-smuggling charges continued.
The week before meeting he was convicted in Istanbul and jailed for eight years. But his lawyer immediately filed an appeal and he was released again.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.