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Special Report: Phuket’s stolen passports shine light on illegal migrant corridor to Europe

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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Special Report: Phuket’s stolen passports shine light on illegal migrant corridor to Europe | The Thaiger
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Special Report

Passports stolen in Phuket that were used to board ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 have placed Phuket in the center of an international maelstrom. Thousands of passports are reported lost or stolen in Thailand each year, and the region is gaining a reputation as a gateway for international asylum seekers to reach Europe.

The Phuket Gazette’s Saran Mitrarat and Amy Sawitta Lefevre for Reuters in Bangkok report.

PHUKET: Investigations into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 led to the discovery that two men boarded the plane with passports stolen in Phuket (story here) – raising fears that a terrorist attack brought the plane down and claimed the lives of the 227 passengers and 12 crew on board.

The men were later identified as Iranian nationals Pouri Nourmohammadi, 18, and Delavar Seyed Mohammadreza, 29. Mr Nourmohammadi was en route to Frankfurt, Germany, where his mother lives, while Mr Mohammadreza was on his way to Copenhagen.

After days of investigations, the Malaysian Police, Thai Police and Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble all made statements concurring that investigators do not believe the two men had any links to terror organizations.

The men had started their journey in Doha – and were flying halfway round the planet and back again to get to their destinations – leading officials to believe that they were attempting to illegally immigrate to Europe under the cloak of their newly acquired passports.

BOOMING TRADE

The international spotlight shining brightly on the plight of the mysteriously missing aircraft spread its beam to reveal to the world the extent of the illegal passport trade in Thailand – and specifically Phuket as a source of stolen passports.

With huge numbers of visitors and patchy law enforcement, Thailand has a booming black market for fake identity documents. Thai authorities struggle to track thousands of lost or stolen passports each year.

Some are known to be sold on through syndicates to drug traffickers. Others are suspected to have ended up in the hands of Islamist militants.

“Fake passports and identity fraud in general is a massive problem in Thailand,” police commander and Thailand’s Interpol director Apichart Suriboonya said.

They are passed on to middlemen, Thai or foreign, who work with criminal networks, he said. The passports may be altered, for example with a new photograph, but sometimes the fraudulent user hopes to pass as the real owner.

Sometimes documents are sold by their owners to cover travel costs, Col Apichart said.

The passenger manifest issued by Malaysia Airlines included the names of two Europeans – Austrian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi – who were not on the plane. Both had passports stolen in Phuket (story here).

The passports were used to buy tickets from travel agents in Pattaya, for flights to Beijing and on to Europe. Thai and foreign investigators were questioning staff at one travel agency on Monday.

Police showed Reuters a copy of Mr Maraldi’s passport used to make the travel booking with what was apparently the original photograph of Mr Maraldi in it. It was not immediately clear if the tickets were bought online or collected.

Thailand’s fake document business has been flourishing for years.

In 2010, Thai and Spanish authorities arrested suspected members of an international ring providing forged passports to militants. Thai authorities say the ring may have passed fake documents to those behind the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

Pockets of Bangkok are notorious counterfeit goods emporiums with fake drivers’ licenses, press cards and airline cabin crew identity cards on display. The Thai capital also boasts experts in forging visas.

“Thailand is fertile territory for people looking to steal European passports. There are lots of foreigners and many foreigners visit,” a European diplomat said.

UNSAVORY CHARACTERS

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said more than 60,000 passports – both Thai and foreign – were reported missing or stolen in Thailand between January 2012 and June 2013.

Phuket Police said they get reports of up to 10 lost passports a month in the province.

Capt Angkarn Yasanop at Phuket Immigration said foreigners can make more than 6,000 baht by selling their passport and then reporting it as stolen. Many lost or stolen passports end up with Thais and other Southeast Asians trying to migrate for work, he said.

Larry Cunningham, who recently retired as Australia’s long-serving honorary consul in Phuket, said major problems arise when tourists leave passports as a deposit when renting jet-skis or motorbikes.

Crooked operators then make a false allegation of damage to the vehicles. The tourist, unwilling to pay, forfeits the passport and reports it stolen at an embassy or consulate and gets a new one. The old passport is sold into the underworld.

“Phuket has some very, very unsavory characters and they’re not all Thais,” Mr Cunningham said. “Nothing would surprise me about Phuket.”

RED FLAGS

Interpol’s stolen and lost travel documents (SLTD) database contains 40 million records from 167 countries, but its secretary general, Ronald Noble, says not enough countries are using it.

“The bad news is that, despite being incredibly cost effective and deployable to virtually anywhere in the world, only a handful of countries are systematically using SLTD to screen travelers,” he told a conference last month.

Col Apichart said Thai databases were not properly linked to Interpol data.

“The technology we use in Thailand to check fraudulent identity cards is outdated at many points of entry,” he said.

SYRIANS IN LIMBO

The outdated passport-checking equipment used by Thai officials saw six other travellers – four Syrians and two Lebanese men – slip through immigration at Phuket International Airport with Greek passports to board a flight to Beijing in January (story here).

The incident highlighted the growing trend for illegal immigrants – asylum seekers or not – to travel to Asia and then on to Europe in the hope of repatriating there.

Chinese officials returned the six men – all believed to be genuine asylum seekers – to Phuket after identifying the passports they were using as fakes.

The men remain under house guard at Phuket International Airport awaiting deportation to a safe destination.

“They left Syria by taking a car to Lebanon without passing through an immigration checkpoint,” explained one airport immigration officer who asked not to be named.

When the men arrived in Lebanon, they were denied 60-day tourist visas by the Thai embassy there.

“There were concerns that if they were allowed to enter Thailand, they would not leave due to the ongoing civil war in their home country,” the officer said.

The men somehow acquired six fake Greek passports, then boarded a flight from Lebanon to Doha and finally arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok by Qatar Airways on December 31, he explained.

The route taken by the refugees was nearly identical to that of the two Iranian nationals who also began their journey in Doha.

“Our records show the six men

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Events

Pattaya firework party lights up the weekend | VIDEO

The Thaiger

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Pattaya firework party lights up the weekend | VIDEO | The Thaiger

After much anticipation, the Pattaya Fireworks Festival lit up the sky this past weekend, delighting spectators with beautiful night beachside spectacle. More importantly, it was the first time Pattaya was packed with tourists since March this year, albeit mostly Thai tourists.

The event program was packed with long fireworks shows with hotels offering promotions for advanced bookings in an attempt to provide a much-needed boost to the local economy over the weekend.

To watch some of last night’s events from Mike Bridge, click HEREand HERE.

The annual festival saw Thais and foreigners taking part in the festivities as local bars, pubs, restaurants, and food vendors enjoying a bit more padding in their pockets. Organisers didn’t disappoint as they carried out their assurances to provide a world-class show with 4 fireworks shows per night. Such titles as “Shining in Sky,” “Paradise Pattaya, Everyday for Everyone,” “Pattaya Twilight, Decorated Stars,” and “Light is Life,” summed up the shows’ themes.

During one of the shows’ breaks, a 45 minute concert by popular Thai artist “Mean” graced the ears of onlookers, while an elephant show, by the Pattaya Elephant Camp, proved to be a sight for sore eyes. Marching bands featuring local Thai students started from the North Pattaya area and parading down Beach Road to the main stage area, located near Central Festival Mall filled the air with music, along with tiger shows and an art show by Nong Nooch Botanical Garden rounding up the schedule.

The popular Thai rock band “Big Ass” wrapped up the last fireworks show at 9:30 pm, with another popular Thai band “Boom Boom Cash” rocking out the night.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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Pattaya

City officials plan to demolish abandoned Pattaya condo project

Maya Taylor

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City officials plan to demolish abandoned Pattaya condo project | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Sophon Cable TV / The Pattaya News

After years of talks, threats, and complaints, the abandoned Waterfront condo development at Pattaya’s Bali Hai pier looks set to be demolished. The Waterfront Suites and Residence is a half-finished condo project that was stalled in 2014 after safety inspectors discovered that the building’s fire escapes and elevator systems designs varied from the already approved construction designs. Read an earlier story about the eyesore HERE.

Pattaya’s mayor, Sonthaya Khunplume, says officials plan to tear down what many have condemned as an eyesore, “as soon as possible” – and charge the owners for it. According to a Pattaya News report, the date of the demolition, along with the name of the company being hired to carry out the work, have not yet been confirmed.

The controversy surrounding the development dates back to 2014, when construction was halted following multiple legal threats and complaints from local residents. The Israeli-owned development company, Bali Hai, are accused of violating building regulations, by building a structure that exceeds the legal height limit, as well as restrictions on proximity to the beach. Local residents have also complained that the development obstructs the panoramic vista of the bay from Pattaya Hill, and the view of the memorial to the renowned Admiral Abhakara Kiartivongse, Prince of Chumphon.

For their part, the developers insist they have complied with all regulations and had the necessary paperwork and permits for the project. It seems however, that Pattaya officials have had enough, and, ignoring the developer’s claims of bankruptcy, they say the whole Waterfront saga must end. They say the demolition will not affect lawsuits being brought by those who paid for condo units that never materialised, insisting that court hearings can still go ahead, regardless of the condition of the building.

SOURCE: The Pattaya News

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Pattaya

Pandemic has washed away Pattaya’s “soapy” massage parlours

The Thaiger

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Pandemic has washed away Pattaya’s “soapy” massage parlours | The Thaiger

While the Covid pandemic has hit Thailand’s businesses hard, it has also washed away its not-so-legal soapy massage parlours after tourism has dried up its clientele. Such places, known as glorified brothels, have left many masseuses out of work as boards have barricaded the once booming establishments.

Soapy Massage (àap-òp-nûat, อาบอบนวด, literally bath, steam, massage)…
These are the bigger massage parlours where girls are presented in the fishbowl and you get the full program (including sex) for a fixed price, depending on the girl starting from 1,500 and up to 5,000 Baht.

Only a few of the soapy services have survived the pandemic in Pattaya, with Honey Massage Parlour being one of them, according to The Pattaya Mail. After adjusting to the new requirements for social distancing, the business has re-opened on November 19. However, its largest shop has closed, once known as Honey 1 on Soi Honey, or Soi 11, the windows are dark and barricaded. Honey Inn is also up for sale.

25 year old masseuse Maywadee, says she used to work in such parlours where she would get a cut of the 1,500 to 2,500 baht fee. She says she used to see up to 7 clients a day, but now that number has been cut in half as Chinese and Japanese tourists, who were her largest group of customers have dwindled. Now, she is thinking about heading back to her home city of Chiang Mai, to sell handicrafts, as her Pattaya income has dried up.

Such parlours feature masseuses that are usually not native to the area, as many come from lower socio-economic areas such as Thailands northeastern provinces, otherwise known as Isaan. Many make the trip to tourist-driven cities like Pattaya, Koh Samui, Bangkok and others, in an attempt to make a higher salary than they would if they were back in Isaan.

SOURCE: The Pattaya Mail

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