Mission Immigration!

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Widespread corruption at Nepal’s immigration system has posed serious risk for the country  

-Nawaraj Mainali : Centre for Investigative Journalism-Nepal

On the day he was appointed as the Home Minister, Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ vowed to formulate immigration policies to reform the sector. While Thapa was busy approving the decision to form a working panel to draft the immigration policy on February 27, immigration officials at Tribhuvan International Airport were colluding with traffickers to send an Indian woman to Hong Kong.

Four Indian women including two who had already boarded to plane were arrested following orders from Hom Nath Thapaliya, the immigration head, after authorities found Nepal Airlines officials and police involved in the trafficking. Indians travelling overland to Nepal and heading to another country are required to present a ‘No Objection Letter’ at the airport in Nepal. Flouting the rules, immigration officials including Naindra Prasad Paudel allowed the women to travel to Hong Kong. Three officials involved in the trafficking scam were suspended from their job; Paudel was transferred to the Department of Immigration.

It was not just a coincidence that the case uncovered on the day Home Minister Thapa announced reform of the immigration sector. Though such incidents occur almost daily, it came to light because of differences among the members of the human trafficking ring. The ring operates through a well-established system called ‘setting’ in which they collude with immigration officials to allow passage to people with fake passport or visa to foreign countries. They also let criminals go free and provide impunity to the accused by making the case weak.

A week after his appointment as Home Minister, Thapa inspected the Department of Immigration. On March 20, he carried out a spot-check at the immigration office of the airport. On the day, Thapa said Nepal was becoming a hub of international criminals because of poor regulation by immigration officials. He fired 32 officials working at the immigration office in the airport. They have been replaced with civil servants who worked in less attractive government offices, according to the Home Ministry.

On March 28, a panel headed by Kedar Neupane, a joint secretary of the Home Ministry, submitted a draft of the immigration policy to Thapa. The policy draft has highlighted 17 major challenges to immigration including open border with India, lack of modern technology, lack of coordination among concerned bodies, management of illegal cross-border traffic and human trafficking.

“We consulted officials of ministries including home, foreign affairs, labour and law before formulating the policy,” said Ram Krishna Subedi, a spokesperson of the Home Ministry. “We will implement this within a month.” Why did home minister Thapa prioritize immigration above other departments? We have delved deep to expose inner workings of immigration officials at the international airport.

A scandal-plagued airport

Florence Tarniquet, a French tourist, lost her passport (13FV 25248) while visiting Bouddha. She applied for another passport at the French Embassy and arrived at the airport on September 18, 2017. The immigration officials found out that someone else had already flown out of Nepal using her passport.

Initially, the immigration officials suspected her, but an investigation found that her passport had been misused. Pratik Rai, an immigration official, had stamped ‘Departure’ on the forged passport holder to fly. The immigration officials failed to nab the fake passport holder, which was a grave breach of security.

Perhaps because it was not the first incident of someone getting away with a stolen passport at the airport, the immigration officials didn’t consider it a serious crime. “Incidents of people using stolen passports, forged passports and visas are fairly common,” a top home ministry official said.

Last year, a person used a passport of a Vietnamese woman to fly from Nepal. But the immigration officials haven’t yet found out who used the stolen passport. Deepak Kafle, Director General of Department of Immigration, said a few cases of fake documents by international travelers weren’t a serious concern. “Cases of fake passport fraud abound even in developed countries,” he said. “There might have been some incidents (of use of fake passport) here too. We are trying to improve our system.”

Seun Wong Lee, a South Korean citizen listed as ‘most wanted’ in Interpol’s ‘Red Corner Notice’.

But there hasn’t been any hint of reform so far. On July 1, 2017, two Iraqis Amid Hussein and Omid Dasli, who carried fake Israeli passports, easily exited Nepal. Heading to France via India, they were arrested at the airport in Mumbai. Nepali officials realized their mistake only after they were deported back to Nepal by Indian immigration. But even now, instead of acknowledging their mistake, the immigration officials blame the technology. “Sometimes errors are caused by faulty technology,” said Hom Nath Thapaliya, head of immigration office at the airport.

A more serious negligence had occurred at the airport immigration on January 8, 2018. Seun Wong Li, a South Korean whom Interpol had issued a Red Corner notice as a most wanted man, easily passed through the security check at the airport. He then left for Pokhara. It was only then that the police realized he was a fugitive. A police squad dispatched to Pokhara to arrest him returned empty handed. The police learned that he would return to the immigration office to renew his visa. The police provided his details to immigration officials and blacklisted him.

Despite all the preparations, he renewed his visa at the immigration office in Pokhara. According to the immigration officials of Pokhara, they were unaware of his status because their computer server was down when the application was submitted. Fortunately, he didn’t flee to another country. A week later, he was arrested in a hotel in Pokhara and deported to South Korea.

The immigration officials themselves resort to ‘computer server down’ formula in order to allow blacklisted people an extension of visa, according to high level sources at the Home Ministry. But Kafle, the director general of the Department of Immigration, claimed that it was not intentional, but technical problem. “At the department, we have software called Emy, which sometimes faces glitches. We are updating it,” he said.

In November 2017, three men from Pokhara—Paras Karki, Kshitij Karki and Phanindra Karki, who had American Green Card—were arrested at the airport in Hong Kong. This incident exposed the dismal state of immigration system in Nepal. The incident came to light after the immigration officials in Hong Kong refused them entry. It demonstrated how easily one can pass through Nepal’s international airport.

Human Trafficking

On November 19, 2017, Bhupal Basnet, a man from Panchthar district, checked into the airport to travel to the United Arab Emirates. He had all the documents required to travel on a visit visa to the country. But the immigration officials turned him away after holding him up for some time. They didn’t tell him why they turned him away.

Basnet returned to the airport with same set of documents five days later. At the time, the immigration officials received him at the entrance. They stamped a ‘departure’ seal on his passport (09402775). That’s because he had paid 80,000 rupees to a travel agent. The agent had bribed the immigration officials to allow Basnet a safe passage.  

A November 2017 investigation by National Investigation Agency revealed that every day between 50 and 100 people paid bribe in order to travel on a visit visa to work abroad. According to the classified report we obtained from the Home Ministry, employees of Nepal Airlines, Fly Dubai, Turkish Airlines, Jet Airways, Qatar Airlines were complicit in the unlawful activity.

The ground handling crew will not provide boarding pass to those on visit visa unless they receive their share of bribe. They illegally charge 13,000-30,000 rupees per person, divide the spoils among the members every week, with the police officers at the airport getting a share, according to the report. The report recommended that the authorities should keep an eye on the activities of 137 agencies that work at the airport.

Thapaliya, the head of immigration office at the airport, acknowledged the human trafficking was widespread at the airport, but he said airlines employees had played bigger role in the illicit business than immigration officials. “A few of them could be our staff, but we have a mechanism to keep an eye on them,” he said.

It’s not clear whether it’s a technical glitch or officials intentionally tempered with it, but the software has been blamed for major error at the airport immigration. One can enter only name and passport details to the software. The software cannot detect if the person holding the passport is using someone else’s identity. That increases the risk of unauthorized use of passport.

To prevent the misuse of passport, many countries have adopted thumbprint or eye retina technology to gather data, but Nepal’s airport isn’t equipped with the technology. The strategic plan prepared by the Department of Immigration has recommended using Automatic Border Control system. Three months ago, the Home Ministry approved a three-year strategic plan, which emphasized on technological reform. “Some of the glitches have occurred due to old technology. Therefore, we will have to switch to biometric technology,” an immigration official said.  

Nepal has become a transit for human traffickers, thanks due to the weak security system at the airport. In August 2017, an Iraqi family was arrested at the airport. They had used fake US passports to travel to Nepal. A few days before that, two Iranians and a Syrian were arrested at the airport. They were carrying fake Spanish passports.

But the destination of the Iranians and Iraqis was not Nepal. People from Middle East use fake European and American passports to enter Europe. But they use Nepal’s airport to travel to their destinations. They travel via Nepal because of lax security check at the airport in the country. Only a handful of them get arrested here.

Immigration officials say lack of biometric technology at the airport has prevented them from identifying the fake passports carried by the Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians. After a large number of Syrians began to arrive in Nepal, the government last year stopped granting them visas on arrival.

It’s not just people from the Middle East. Afghanis, Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis have also used Nepal to illegally travel to Europe. An investigation into the arrest on February 27, 2018 of four Indians including two women who lacked mandatory ‘No Objection Letter’ found that each had paid human traffickers 250,000 rupees for their passage to Hong Kong.

After the spike in cases of foreigners using fake passports, authorities on April 19 launched a crackdown called ‘Operation Mandala’. The operation began after officials entered the data of 170 million passports and travel documents that had been lost across the world, according to Kafle, the Director General of the Department of Immigration.

Earlier, authorities used to find out about the blacklisted person only after he or she fled the airport. Now the immigration officials know whether a person is blacklisted before his or her arrival or departure. Kafle said this will help authorities arrest the fake passport holders and fugitives.

 Letting the culprits off the hook

Nepal’s courts are accused of delaying verdict in most cases. But the district court of Kathmandu has reputation for delivering rulings in record time. If a case is related to immigration, verdict is usually issued the same day. No matter how serious the offence, the sentence is usually equivalent to the period the accused spent in detention and a 5000 rupees fine.

The Kathmandu district court fined the Iraqi national 5000 rupees. He had been arrested at the airport with a fake American passport. The use of fake passport is a grave crime among immigration offences. Immigration officials say such lenient sentence has encouraged criminals to use Nepal’s airport for outbound travels.

But even the investigation by the Department of Immigration lacks rigor. Besides the testimony of the accused, the authorities lack any evidence while filing the case at the court. An organised network of several people is behind cases of human trafficking, fake passport and visa, but the officials of the Department of Immigration never probe the nexus. They want the people arrested to be presented at the court as soon as possible. So much so that there was no investigation into the case of the four Indians who were arrested on February 27, 2018. They were released a few hours after being detained at the Department of Immigration. The Department of Immigration lost an opportunity to nab the traffickers who were sending them to Hong Kong.

Instead of punishing its officials colluding with traffickers, the Home Ministry lets them off the hook. The Nepal Airlines Corporation suspended officials including Bijay Adhikari, Ghanashyam Chaudhary and Hari Sunar, who were working to allow travels of four Indians to Hong Kong.  But Naindra Prasad Paudel, the immigration officer who stamped ‘departure’ on their passports, was just transferred to the department. Pratik Rai, who had played a major role in the case of French woman, also got away with transfer. Instead of taking action against Rai, the department transferred him to the agency section.

In another instance, a woman from Uzbekistan named Natokaj Jaripara arrived in Nepal in 2013. Then, she left for Goa in India. She returned to Nepal. Her four years overstay in Nepal had incurred her 600,000 rupees in fine. She arrived at the Department of Immigration to pay her dues. But she left the office saying she would collect money for the fine. She never returned at the office, but was about to leave the country via the international airport.

She had cleared immigration at the airport by tempering with the dates on her visa. She had altered the year 2013 to 2018. She was arrested after officials found the discrepancy. It was revealed that she had paid 400,000 rupees as bribe to officials for her exit. It was also revealed that a director of the Department of Immigration had played a key role in the process. “The immigration office is rife with cases like these. We receive several complaints. An internal inquiry is set up, but action is rarely taken against the guilty. All they do is transfer the official to another department. That’s why they are encouraged to repeat the offence,” said an official at the home ministry.

Threat to National Security?

In 2017, the Department of Immigration deported 434 foreign nationals for overstaying in Nepal. They had been illegally staying in Nepal for more than five months. That such huge number of foreigners who arrived on tourist visas overstayed showed that tourist visa had been misused in Nepal.

Former home secretary Chandi Shrestha said switching to modern technology at the airport had been long overdue. “Government spends millions of rupees on buildings, but has failed to invest in reforming the immigration sector. This could create trouble for the entire country,” he said.

Perhaps because of the frustration at not being able to control corruption, the Home Ministry has often sought to replace the civil servants with police at the airport immigration. Three years ago, when Bam Dev Gautam was home minister, he tried to enforce it. Janardan Sharma (former home minister) also tried to implement it last summer. But it was put on the backburner after opposition from the ministry’s officials. Until 1990, the airport immigration was under the jurisdiction of the police, but it came under the civil servants after that.   

Former AIG Rajendra Singh Bhandari said it made sense to hand the responsibility to police because they were a disciplined force and faced punishment immediately after a mistake. But former secretary Shrestha said the airport immigration wasn’t likely to reform no matter who ran it.

Even today, the police deployed at the airport for security check will have details on people under Red Corner Notice and stolen or missing passports and travel documents. But lack of coordination between the police, which have access to the INTERPOL database and the immigration office, have hurt the sector.

Foreign interests

Countries from India to the United States have expressed an interest on modernizing Nepal’s immigration system. While India has proposed to install modern software at the airport, the US has put pressure on Nepal to install software called Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES). Under pressure, the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba had agreed to install PISCES. But the Home Ministry, fearful that the data could be misused by others, didn’t allow it.

PISCES is a border security database system developed by the US government. Nepali immigrant officials suspect that their secret data might land at the foreign country’s system. Several countries have removed the software after such suspicion. Former secretary Shrestha said the government should not receive technological assistance for airport immigration. He said the Nepali state should invest in it. Home Minister Thapa hasn’t initiated any move to use foreign money for digital security at the immigration.

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