Name any human smuggling racket these days, and Kathmandu most likely will figure in the scam.
Scams like: Nepalis travelling on fake passports, often with phony visas. Nepalis deported from cities around the world because the photo on their passports have been switched. Iraqis with fake Portuguese passports travelling to Europe through Kathmandu. Chinese nationals using fake Japanese passports bought in Bangkok transiting Kathmandu en route Kansai.
Kathmandu airport is not just where Nepalis use fake documents to get out of their country, it is also getting the reputation among the international human smuggling networks as an 'easy' airport to transit. Our lax controls, immigration desks with inadequate counterfeit detection equipment, rampant corruption, and a huge domestic demand for fake travel documents from Nepalis desperate to migrate for a better life make it an ideal jum-off point.
Last year, a Chinese national travelling on a stolen US passport with the photograph changed, chose Kathmandu as a transit point to sneak into the US because he knew he would not be detected by airport authorities here. Interestingly, the man had already cleared immigration when he was caught, but his passport had no departure stamp. A retired immigration official told us there are numerous instances where a person who cleared immigration on one passport and ticket has left Kathmandu on another.
Many of these passengers are deported back to Kathmandu when their bogus documents are detected at US, European, Gulf and East Asian entry points. In the last three months alone, there have been 60 cases of fraudulent passports and citizenship registered by the government prosecutor at the Kathmandu District Court. These days, the police Special Investigation Cell is preoccupied with passport and visa fraud cases, and has had to deal with 30 deported Nepali passengers since May.
We put it to police superintendent Rajendra Singh Bhandari that corruption at the immigration desk seems to be the main reason Kathmandu has earned this reputation. "It is a combination of factors," he replied. "It could be that they find Nepal an easy place to transit on their way to other places. More and more people are being deported back to Kathmandu from airports abroad, and Nepalis are getting a bad reputation."
According to one police testimony, Dipak Sherchan used to go to Japan often for his pashmina export business. His wife, Meena, also had a Japanese visa in her passport. Meena's picture was replaced with that of her niece's. In May this year, Dipak and his niece checked in for the Royal Nepal flight to Osaka , they cleared immigration and security and were waiting in the lounge when the suspicion of police inspector Satis Gyawali was aroused. The two were not speaking to each other, the inspector recalls, and were not behaving like husband and wife. Upon re-examination, the niece's passport was discovered to be 'PC' (photo-changed). According to a testimony by the niece to the police, a man named Gopal Silwal had made the photo switch for Rs 600,000.
The going rate for a Nepali passport with a genuine US, UK or Japanese visa is anywhere up to Rs 1.2 million. But if the passport and/or visas are both fake, there are discounts. Foreign passports stolen from tourists can also be sold to Nepalis who can pass off as Japanese or British Asians. As visa rules are tightened and there is increased vigilance at foreign airports for passengers with Nepali passports, locals are using ingenious methods to go abroad. A Nepali passenger who boarded a recent flight in Kathmandu dressed in blue jeans emerged at Bangkok airport as a Buddhist monk to catch an onward flight.
Diplomatic sources told us that just before the UK announced visas were required by Nepalis to even transit London, 10 Nepalis with round-the-world tickets had flown in from Argentina, destroyed their travel documents at Heathrow and sought political asylum in Britain. Three years ago 12 Nepalis on their way to a youth conference in Algiers got off during their London transit and disappeared. Senior figures of a political party were implicated in the scam.
Another testimony to the police reveals how desperate people have taken on the identities of the wives of important people to obtain citizenship certificates, passports and even visas.
In her testimony to police after being arrested, Elisa Thapa confessed she wanted to join her husband in the US, and paid a certain Ram Bahadur Thapa Rs 200,000 to get her the documents. He took her to the Foreign Ministry to make a passport in the name of Padma Chaudhary, the wife of then state minister of communications, Hari Narayan Chaudhary. An accomplice who claimed to be the personal assistant of Minister Chaudhary, Rudraraj Poudel, then took Elisa to the American Embassy, but her visa was refused. Ram Bahadur had another passport made, this time in the name of Sunita Singh, the wife of the MP of Mahottari, Ramjivan Singh. When she went for a visa the second time, she was arrested.
According to testimonies by Nepalis caught with fake or altered documents, a mafia connected to international networks is involved in human smuggling and has direct connections to senior political levels in Nepal. According to recent documents found by police in a flat belonging to a passport counterfeiter, 26 Indian nationals from Darjeeling were recently supplied with Nepali passports for Rs 50,000 each.
Passport and fake citizenship scams are now also beginning to have an impact on security. An Indian gangster named Pappu Dev who is wanted in Bihar was caught last month at Kathmandu airport while boarding a flight to Dubai with a Nepali passport bearing the name of Anil Sharma. According to a testimony made by his associate to Nepali police, Pappu Dev aka Anil Sharma had been smuggling AK-47s to India through Nepal. Last year, Bihar police arrested four Pappu Dev gang members in possession of AK-47s. The guns were supplied to him by ex-MP Salim Miya Ansari of Bara. The informant, Hareram Chaudhary, was Pappu Dev's accomplice and was himself caught recently trying to smuggle counterfeit Indian currency into India.
Chaudhary told police that former home minister Khum Bahadur Khadka called him and Pappu Dev to his residence in Harihar Bhawan two years ago to order Salim Miya's execution. Pappu Dev reportedly said he'd think about it.
According to police records, Pappu Dev actually carries a Nepali citizenship certificate from Kaski district and a passport under the name Anil Sharma. Both bear photographs of him wearing a large Nepali topi. The passport (no. 1004286) was issued at the CDO office at Lalitpur on the recommendation o