Europe's open-border arrangement, which enables travel through 26 countries without passport checks or border controls, is effectively an international passport-free zone for terrorists to execute attacks on the Continent and make their escape.
This is one of the most obvious lessons of the horrific terrorist attacks that struck Paris last week. And it offers one of the simplest solutions. The open borders arrangement should be suspended, and each of the participating countries should begin immediately to systematically screen all passports against a database of stolen and lost passports maintained by Interpol, the international police organization.
Leading up to these latest attacks, none of those countries systematically screened passports or verified the identities of those crossing borders by land or at seaports or airports. This is like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe. And they have been accepting the invitation.
In the past decade or so, terrorist attacks in Madrid and London and the assassination of Serbia’s prime minister were all linked to fake or stolen passports. Now we have Paris.
One of the terrorists in Paris may have used a fake Syrian passport to enter Greece to claim asylum. Serbian authorities subsequently arrested a man whose passport contained details identical to the one found at the scene of the Paris attacks, suggesting that both passports were produced by the same counterfeiter. It should come as no surprise if further evidence shows that the perpetrators of these attacks used fake or stolen passports.
Europe’s open border arrangement was negotiated in 1985 in Schengen, a town in Luxembourg, and is known as the Schengen Agreement. It took effect in 1995. The idea was to abolish internal border controls and initiate a common visa policy, eliminating lines at border crossings and reducing costs to central governments. Twenty-two European Union nations and four others — Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein — are now parties to the agreement.
In September, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, called the free movement under the Schengen Agreement “a unique symbol of European integration.”
But what once seemed a sensible idea now offers real and present danger. Stolen, doctored and fake passports from the Schengen area are among the most sought-after forms of identification by terrorists, drug smugglers, human traffickers and other criminals. As of last year, eight Schengen countries were on the list of the top 10 nations reporting stolen or lost passports in Interpol’s databases. Not one of those countries systematically screened passports at their borders.
Among the European countries that are not parties to the Schengen Agreement is the United Kingdom, which began screening passports against Interpol’s database following the 2005 terrorist attacks there that killed 52 people and injured more than 700. The U.K. now screens about 150 million passports a year, more than all other European Union nations combined, and catches more than 10,000 people a year trying to cross its borders using invalid travel documents.
This record underscores the value of screening against Interpol’s database. The database on stolen and lost travel documents was created after Sept. 11 and today contains information on more than 45 million passports and identity documents reported lost or stolen by 169 countries.
The United States had a long history of terrorists using stolen, lost or fake passports and identity documents to enter the country. In 1993, for instance, Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, entered the country to claim asylum using a stolen Iraqi passport.
In 2007, the United States began vetting identification documents and today leads the world in passport screening, with over 300 million checks annually against Interpol’s database, which has flagged thousands of invalid documents.
The United States is safer as a result.
Having open borders without the proper vetting aids and abets terrorists. The failure to thoroughly screen passports or check identities at border crossings is simply irresponsible in the face of global terrorism. Based on my 14 years of experience running Interpol, I know that terrorists will be much more likely to succeed as long as countries fail to properly check the identities of those who cross their borders.
In the wake of these latest attacks, some European countries are rethinking their open border policy. On Friday, European Union interior ministers are expected to consider immediate, tighter border checks on their citizens entering or leaving the Schengen zone, at the request of the French government.
These are positive steps. The so-called Islamic State could attack again today, tomorrow or next week. Until passports are screened systematically at every single entry point, the 26 Schengen countries must suspend their open border arrangement and close this passport-free travel zone throughout Europe.
Only then will words of sorrow and solidarity from our heads of state have real meaning.
Ronald K. Noble was secretary general of Interpol from 2000 to 2014.