Skip to comments.Pakistan City Known for Passport Trade
Posted on 01/04/2003 11:32:52 AM PST by Dog Gone
GUJRAT, Pakistan (AP) -- Walk the windswept streets, and you'll hear the same thing no matter who's talking. There is, they say in Gujrat, an itch -- to go elsewhere, to join loved ones overseas, to seek fortunes that can't be found on the rutted streets of home.
The people of this teeming city on central Pakistan's Punjabi plain ache to travel to other countries. And in a post-Sept. 11 era when Western visas are harder than ever to come by, Gujratis have a reputation for finding a way.
``Anywhere you go in the world, if you find Pakistanis with fake documents, you'll find someone from Gujrat,'' said Mirza, who runs a travel agency on the grounds of Gujrat's sports stadium and has six British Airways outstanding sales performance certificates on his wall. He wouldn't give his last name.
Last week, the American government circulated photos of foreigners suspected of entering the United States illegally in a case that has raised fears of terrorism.
One suspect's photo that the FBI released under the name Mustafa Khan Owasi is apparently a jeweler in nearby Lahore named Mohammed Asghar, who says he never traveled to the United States. He said he had been mistakenly identified and that the photo was identical to one he used for a forged British visa several months ago.
But though authorities acknowledge that passport forgery operations are everywhere, an official from Pakistan's Federal Investigative Agency says some 70 percent of fake travel documents come from two cities just 30 miles apart -- Gujranwala and Gujrat.
This is what the United States fears: that in the serpentine bazaars of Pakistani towns like Gujrat, out of investigators' reach, fake Americans and fake American visitors are being created with cameras and laser printers and the intricate work of forgers' skilled hands. While many of the illegal travelers are simply looking for better-paying jobs, it is a route open to terrorist exploitation.
``If we think there's a smuggling ring that's willing to smuggle people in that might harm America, we'll deal with it,'' President Bush said last week.
That won't be easy. Europe and the United States remain alluring economic beacons, especially for a city of 250,000 people with many loved ones already abroad and little industry beyond a few ceiling-fan and washing-machine factories. And when the market makes demands, supply is rarely far behind.
``They have very good printing presses. And they have very good forgers,'' Javaid Shani, a supervisor in Gujrat's police department, said Saturday. ``If the inspectors at the airport have a difficult time identifying the fakes, how can our people do it well?''
Reported prices in Pakistan have ranged from $220 for a fake Egyptian visa to $25,000 for customers who want to go to the United States.
Travel agents interviewed in Gujrat on Saturday said they only book tickets and don't deal with documents, which they say are handled directly between travelers and the embassies of their destination countries.
But all said forgery is a local specialty, and some complained they're held responsible and even fined if they issue one-way tickets to travelers discovered with doctored papers.
``If the embassies treated Pakistanis right, they wouldn't need to forge visas,'' said Sajid Syed, manager of the al-Tayyab Travel Agency. ``I know my country is not full of terrorists. Why don't other governments realize that? We simply want new opportunities.''
The head of the Federal Investigative Agency's passport crimes unit, Abdul Malik, said the agency's immigration branch referred 400 cases of forgery and fake documents in 2002. More than 450 investigations are still pending from 2000, he said.
In Lahore, where Asghar obtained his forged visa, two forgers, one young and one middle-aged, spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. They said the most common method is ``PC'' -- picture change, which involves replacing a passport's original photo with an adeptly inserted new one.
Complete documents cost more, both said, and some forgers even accompany their customers aboard planes and swap passports in flight.
Some Gujratis say the thriving industry proves an important point: not that extremists with violent agendas are trying to infiltrate other countries, but that Pakistanis are eager to chase prosperity.
``Countries like ours, we are underdeveloped. Our people want new opportunities,'' said Nishat ul-Haq, a Gujrat native who has family in England. ``We're not all bad people, us Pakistanis.''
Gujrat is brimming with tantalizing hints that an outside world exists -- Pepsi and Kodak and Honda signs, kiosks selling telephone cards to call relatives abroad, and advertisement after advertisement for Pakistan International Airlines.
It also offers sights that would make Americans uneasy -- Kalashnikov assault rifles on display in gun store windows on the Zahoor Ellahi Stadium grounds, just doors from the travel agencies that would dispatch people to other lands.
Though many say relaxing visa requirements would solve matters, that's unlikely any time soon. Besides, says Shani, the police officer, that could cause another problem entirely.
``If there were not these restrictions,'' he said, smiling wanly, ``half of Pakistan would leave.''
I wonder how many of them would love to migrate to Mecca, the Prophet's homeland in Saudi Arabia? Or perhaps Yeman or Kuwait, other bastions of Islam. No, they're not that crazy, they want to infest the West and bring their Islam with them. There isn't one single Sharia-run country that is worth living in, and the religion is the reason why.
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