STOCKHOLM, Sweden – The Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm has issued thousands of passports with false information to asylum seekers, helping them gain residency in Sweden or Norway under fake identities, immigration officials said Wednesday.
The embassy, which serves both Sweden and Norway, has "nearly nonexistent" controls of the identification papers Iraqis present when applying for a passport, said Bengt Hellstrom, an expert with the Swedish Migration Board.
Sweden's Foreign Ministry summoned Iraqi Ambassador Ahmad Bamarni to discuss the issue Wednesday.
The Scandinavian country has emerged as the most popular destination in Europe for Iraqis fleeing the war in their homeland, in part because of its relatively lax immigration laws. Nearly 9,000 Iraqi asylum seekers arrived in Sweden last year, triple the number for 2005, according to Migration Board statistics.
Once in Sweden, many asylum seekers apply for official passports issued by the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm based on wrongful information on their fake ID documents, immigration officials said.
Hellstrom said some sell the passports for thousands of dollars to other Iraqis wanting to enter Europe. Citizens of other Middle Eastern countries may also want an Iraqi passport because it makes it easier to get asylum in Sweden, he said.
The result: Thousands of Iraqis and other foreigners are believed to be living in Scandinavia under false identities, making it nearly impossible to screen for known criminals.
"We have seen that (the embassy) regularly issues passports based on documents that we have rejected or deemed to be false," Hellstrom told The Associated Press. "Our faith in these passports is nearly zero. But if we can't say for sure that the papers are false, they will likely form the basis of their asylum application. In the end, that can lead to citizenship."
Iraqi Embassy officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment, but announced a news conference later Wednesday.
In 2006, nearly 300 passports and other ID papers based on false information were received by the Migration Board's central control agency, Hellstrom said. However, migration officials around the country only send in a fraction of the passports believed to be false for verification, Hellstrom said, meaning the total number of passports with false identities is likely in the thousands.
The false passports became a political issue after a Norwegian man was convicted last year of forging hundreds of ID papers for Iraqis.
"If this is true, the government takes it very seriously," said Anders Friberg, a spokesman for the Migration Ministry. "But it's too early to speculate on what measures we might take."
Bamarni, the Iraqi ambassador, acknowledged in a recent interview with the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten that a majority of passports issued by the embassy could carry fake identities.
"We have to go by the documentation that is presented without being able to check its authenticity in Iraq," he was quoted as saying.
Hellstrom said there were indications fake passports were being sent from Sweden to Iraq to help others enter the Scandinavian country. "We have to put our foot down soon," he said.