Your passport: Not yours to give away

The next time you’re told to hand over your passport, keep in mind that it’s not your passport — you don’t own it.

Don’t believe us? Check your passport.

If it’s British, turn to page 2: “This passport remains the property of Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and may be withdrawn at any time. It should not be tampered with or passed to an unauthorized person.”

That’s the law for most countries, including the United States and Philippines.

We bring this up in relation to a Cayman Islands police investigation of an individual here who allegedly has been issuing high-interest loans, and holding passports as collateral.
This follows a Caymanian Compass story that appeared in November 2012, wherein immigration officials said they were aware of at least one instance where a local pawnshop held a person’s passport in exchange for a cash loan.

Local laws in relation to “passport loans” are somewhat vague. That’s something officials need to address because the potential ramifications of itinerant passports extend beyond Cayman’s shores.

A couple of years ago, the passport loans issue became a news item for Hong Kong’s Filipino community. In response to a particular criminal case, where a Filipina expatriate was making loans to domestic helpers, the Philippines’ Consul General to Hong Kong, Noel Servigon, warned people not to surrender their passports voluntarily to anyone.

“We are getting more and more requests for help from people who have given their passports to other Filipinos as collateral for loans … I need to inform you that the consulate cannot do anything to help in these circumstances,” he said, according to a Hong Kong news report.

Mr. Servigon made a distinction between a person voluntarily surrendering a passport to, say, a loan shark — where officials cannot help because the passport holder is the one at fault — and a person having their passport involuntarily seized by, say, an unscrupulous employer — where officials could press ahead with charges of theft.

It’s unlawful for someone to “transfer ownership” of a passport, and it’s illegal in Cayman to alter a passport for unauthorized use; however, as in Hong Kong, the legal situation in Cayman doesn’t seem quite so clear in regard to allowing someone to hold your passport.

In the recent local case, police say the suspect refused to return passports when borrowers defaulted on their loans, which also seems logical. After all, that’s what collateral is for.

What is concerning, and takes little imagination to envision, is the nefarious purposes to which a passport could be put to use if it falls into the wrong hands.

For Cayman, which is dependent on foreign tourism and expatriate workers, this is a potentially dangerous situation with implications for our international relations.
Trafficking in purloined passports has become profitable and commonplace in the black market, and fraudulent passports often play a role in cross-border terrorism and smuggling operations.

For a recent illustration of how serious major nations are about passport security, recall the U.K.’s decision a few months ago to take over passport printing duties from its overseas territories, including Cayman, with the primary aim of ensuring that all new British passports are equipped with biometric data.

While it makes the Compass uneasy to hear about passport loan operations in Cayman, we are happy to see that the police are on top of the issue. However, if our current statute is inadequate to thwart passport loan schemes, lawmakers need to create a fortified one, using clear, unequivocal language.

At the moment, Cayman’s problem appears to be rather isolated, but it should be addressed before our localized issue becomes an international one.

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