MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Somalis aided by human traffickers are using fake passports to board the Mogadishu-to-Istanbul flight as a way to flee to Europe, a Somali official and Turkish Airlines said.
Turkish Airline last year became the first international airline to fly direct to Mogadishu after two decades of conflict isolated the East African nation. Somalia's government said that Somali asylum seekers are using fake passports that belong to Somali-Europeans smuggling networks to get to Europe by flying out of the country on Turkish Airlines.
"After the city got some stability, human traffickers returned with scams," said Gen. Abdullahi Gafow Mohamud, Somalia's immigration and naturalization department chief. "The problem increased when Turkish Airlines started operating here. Somalis in Europe are increasingly using fake passports to smuggle people illegally into Europe."
Mohamud said Somali officials caught three people using fake passports last week. He accused Somalis in Europe of being part of the scam. Residents in Somalia pay thousands of dollars for the use of the false passports.
"They look for people with similar features, so that they give their passports to them to assist the person to get to Europe unnoticed. We can't ignore it anymore," he said.
Mohamud showed reporters bundles of fake passports he said were used by human traffickers.
Turkish Airlines confirmed that such scams are happening. Merve Oruc, a spokesman for the airline, said in an email that the airline is experiencing "some problems" with fake passports.
"And because of it, (the) visa department of our subsidiary, Turkish Ground Services, goes to Mogadishu for each flight and works together there with Immigration Office," Oruc wrote.
The Somali government is concerned the smuggling scams could lead to the stoppage of the Istanbul-Mogadishu flight. Oruc said the airline has no plans to discontinue the flight.
Since African Union forces ousted al-Shabab fighters from Mogadishu about 18 months ago, a relative peace has returned to the war-battered city, creating a new sense of hope and opportunity in the seaside city.
At the height of violence in Somalia thousands of Somalis fled across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen ever year and dozens perished at sea while trying to cross the Red Sea in rickety boats. Despite the new, relative peace, many Somalis are still trying to flee to Europe or North America.
Human traffickers are banking on the relatively weak Somali passport security to pass through the system unnoticed. World governments rarely grant visas to Somali passport holders, leading many Somalis to believe that an illegal human trafficking route is their only way to get to Europe.