To ensure that both frontline immigration and border control officers and document examiners can carry out their important responsibilities, the need for continuing support and on-the-job training in document examination and verification is ever-present. In this article, Sjef Broekhaar and Fumiko Nagano take us through the tasks and benefits of the newly created Document Examination Support Center (DESC), which was established to address this need. While DESC’s target beneficiaries are the immigration and border control agencies, its primary partner entities are the issuing authorities of travel documents.

A day in the life of an immigration officer
A frontline border control officer has just finished his final day of a document examination training programme. He has served in his agency for 12 years, but up until now had never received any training in this area of expertise. The officer enjoyed learning about the various aspects of document examination, about the different printing techniques used to secure the travel documents, and in particular about the overt and covert security features in the paper. He feels a surge of confidence that maybe – just maybe – he is finally equipped with the necessary knowledge to make a solid decision on any questioned travel document he might encounter in his daily job.

The following day the officer reports to work. He feels ready to apply all the knowledge he has just gained, and deep down hopes that today is the day he encounters a traveller who turns out to be an imposter or who presents him with a suspicious document. He waits, while the day drags on. As usual there are very few border crossings, and the officer feels disappointed that he does not encounter any suspicious travel document or anyone who could be posing as a look-alike. In fact, he does not get to practice the skills he has learned during his course; not this day, not the next, not even for several weeks afterwards.

But then one day, when the officer has nearly forgotten that he ever attended a training, that day arrives: he is facing a woman at the arrival counter who presents him with a tattered travel document. He can feel that there is something amiss with her document, but he is unable to articulate what it is exactly. He cannot possibly detain the traveller on his gut feeling alone, but he is not able to substantiate his suspicion with the proof necessary to bar the woman from onward travel. At that very moment the officer realises that the training he recently received was certainly useful but not enough, and that he still lacks sufficient information, resources, equipment and experienced secondary lines of support that can offer guidance in making an informed decision about the document. Meanwhile, the woman starts to complain. Feeling defeated, stressed and under time pressure, the officer allows her to cross the border.

Lack of fully trained officers
Such scenarios are common in many parts of the world, and if we take a moment to think about it, the tremendous risks involved in letting such scenarios continue to happen become apparent. The critical role that frontline immigration and border control officers play in handling travel documents at key stages in the migration process cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the appropriate use of valid travel documents and the presence of capable officers who have been fully trained in document examination constitute the cornerstone of safe and orderly migration. However, all too often these officers, many of whom work under intense pressure and with limited resources or capacity are unable to properly verify the authenticity of travel documents.

Border security: the relationship between officers and travel documents
Genuine travel documents, such as passports, identity cards, and visas, provide unique information about a person’s identity and nationality. They are the single most important instruments with which an individual can exercise their right to freedom of movement and residence within a state’s borders, as well as the right to leave any state, including their own, and return to it.
Immigration and border control officers, as their country’s gatekeepers, directly handle travel documents on a daily basis. These documents are used to identify and process individuals at border crossings and through automated border control systems. In addition, travel documents serve as the basis for the issuance of visas and permits and help determine an individual’s eligibility for special programs and authorisations. The decision of immigration and border control officers to allow or refuse an individual entry or exit to or from a country is primarily based on travel documents.

For officers to effectively perform their duties and protect their country’s borders, they must understand both the concept and importance of travel documents and their application. Officers must also be acutely aware of the various types of travel documents and their security features, as well as the details of document personalisation and issuance. This is a highly complex and technical field of expertise, requiring thorough knowledge of the multiple phases and processes of the travel document chain.

When properly equipped and trained, immigration and border control officers have the capacity to detect the unlawful use of travel documents. In turn, such capacity contributes to the prevention of irregular migration and transnational crime and may potentially lead to the identification of both perpetrators and victims of such crimes, including persons involved in human smuggling and trafficking, and victims of sexual and labour exploitation. Therefore, frontline immigration and border control officers as well as document examiners, alongside travel document issuing authorities, are intricately linked to the national security of their respective countries.

Document Examination Support Center (DESC)
An understanding of the importance of travel documents and the role of frontline officers in checking travel documents has led many donors and implementing agencies to develop and deliver training on the topic. However, there is a gap between the controlled environment of a classroom and the reality. Formal courses must be supplemented with additional, on-the-job training if officers are to learn to apply in practice the theoretical knowledge which they obtained in the classroom. This is particularly important, given the ever-changing trends in irregular migration and numerous methods employed in document fraud.

To address the existing need for direct assistance to frontline officers in document examination, in February 2012 the Document Examination Support Center (DESC) was created with funding from the Government of Canada. DESC strives to minimise the kind of risky scenarios described above by providing a reliable, easily accessible point of contact through which immigration and border control officers can receive guidance and advice on suspicious travel documents in order to combat irregular migration and related transnational crimes. The Center’s overarching vision is to contribute to the prevention of irregular migration and the suppression of transnational organised crime through direct support in document examination and verification targeted at these officers, document examiners and issuing authorities.

DESC is implemented by the Immigration and Border Management Unit of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand. The Center’s initial geographic scope is the Southeast Asia region, with a particular focus on Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam. Eventually, the IOM envisions that the Center’s coverage will expand to the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Immigration and border control officers can contact DESC for help when they have a question about a travel document or visa. Based on the information about the document that the requesting officer has provided, the Center consults available resources (such as document examination equipment, specimens of travel documents, reference sources and in-house expertise) and supplies the officer with the information necessary to determine whether the questioned document is genuine. Although a digital image of the document in question or part thereof can be submitted for further examination, the preferred and most reliable method for verification is to post the original document to the Center for further examination.

Crucial factors
The extent to which DESC can support those officers requesting assistance with document verification is dependent on two crucial factors:

  • The quality of the information provided by requesting officers concerning the travel document.
  • The level of technical expertise available to officers to utilise the information shared.
    Except when officers have the time and means to post the original travel document for examination, DESC can only offer remote assistance based on the information received. The Center seeks to guide officers through the decision-making process, yet the responsibility for the final decision regarding the document’s authenticity ultimately rests with the officers.

In cases where DESC has sufficient information to conclude that the questioned travel document is fraudulent, it issues the requesting officers a written explanation of the type of fraud detected. Even in cases where the Center cannot definitively conclude that the document is fraudulent based on the information received, it can still provide the officers with additional information to guide them through the next steps and help them to conclude the case.

Turnaround time
The turnaround time for support largely depends on the level of complexity of the request received. In some instances for example, where similar trends have been previously identified immediate support and advice can be provided. However, in other instances for example when a case is unprecedented additional time and resources to examine and verify the document are required. The Center’s capacity to respond also depends on the rate at which partners share information.

One-stop shop
As DESC’s motto ‘We Are Here to Help You’ suggests, the Center strives to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for travel document verification targeted at frontline immigration and border control officers and document examiners. When necessary, DESC can contact the relevant issuing authorities on behalf of the officers to collect the necessary information for document verification. The Center can also serve as a single point of contact to coordinate the document verification process and enable information sharing among immigration and border control officers from multiple countries.

Building partnerships
While DESC’s target beneficiaries are the immigration and border control agencies, its primary partner entities are the issuing authorities of travel documents. Because these authorities are the very entities that issue documents, they as the single critical source of information are also the most important partners for DESC. The relationship can be mutually beneficial: when the Center uncovers information about certain types of fraudulent documents in circulation or when they analyse ongoing trends, the partner issuing authorities can utilise this critical information, for example, to design the next generation of travel documents for their countries. In this way, DESC can also play an advisory role for the issuing authorities in providing guidance, both on the development of travel documents and on the delivery of training to their staff. The Center’s approach to working with issuing authorities is to sign cooperation agreements in order to have a clear understanding of the responsibilities of each entity and to help protect the privacy and personal data of citizens.

Benefits of using DESC
There are a number of additional advantages offered by the use of DESC:

  • The Center provides information that originates from travel document issuing authorities or from border control authorities that have intercepted similar types of fraudulent documents. This means that the information shared by DESC comes solely and directly from the source.
  • The Center, at its outset, is designed to focus its assistance on border control agencies in the region. This regional emphasis gives DESC a unique vantage point to collect information specific to the Asia-Pacific region in order to uncover interesting regional trends on irregular migration from routes travelled to the use of specific forgery techniques, to name but a few. The Center will also be able to analyse statistics and compile data on new developments in the region. Accordingly, this capacity to uncover trends and other useful information will enable the Center to inform border control agencies and travel document issuing authorities quickly and efficiently on new developments and threats that they need to be aware of.

DESC was established with a full understanding of the importance of on-the-job training and tailor-made training programmes that take into account the context and environment in which the frontline officers work. As the Center becomes aware of new trends, developments and threats in specific countries as well as in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, it intends to create customised training programmes based on this data, in order to keep immigration and border control officers up-to-date on the latest information related to border management.

This new initiative, in the form of DESC, recognises and addresses the existing need for continuing support and on-the-job training in document examination and verification for both frontline immigration and border control officers and document examiners to ensure that they can carry out their important responsibilities. In doing so, DESC bridges the gap between theory and reality which these officers must face in order to hone their craft in document examination. The Center guides the officers in their decision-making process about questioned documents as they attempt to apply their theoretical knowledge gained in a controlled environment to their own challenging, messy context in the real world, where the answers are not obvious and the unexpected is not only possible, but also the norm. This process contributes to strengthening the local, on-the-ground capacity in document examination and verification, which is a critical but often underappreciated field of expertise in border management.

In addition to the objectives its establishment originally intended to achieve, DESC offers possibilities for governments and international organisations committed to the fight against irregular migration and transnational organised crime. Through its coordination role and regional approach, the Center has huge potential to collect and analyse pertinent data to uncover new trends in transnational crime and document fraud. Once data and resulting in-depth analyses become available, the possibility emerges to share this information and develop more effective means and training programmes to prevent these crimes. Only through consensus among governments on the potential offered by document examination as an effective shield against criminal entities, can the fight against irregular migration and transnational organised crime achieve any meaningful progress.

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Sjef Broekhaar is Head of the Immigration and Border Management Unit of the IOM’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok. He initiated and developed the electronic database Edison containing images of security features, and is a member of ICAO’s NTWG.

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