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The cover of the refreshed Belgian passport. © FPS Foreign affairs
What exactly happens between the time you apply for a passport from your municipality or consular post and the time of collection? In order to prevent fraud, each application passes through 2 databases at our FPS for a thorough check.
For those who want to travel within Europe – except the UK – the electronic identity card is sufficient. The same goes for a number of countries, such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. For all other countries, you are required to hold an international passport: the familiar burgundy booklet that you need to present at the border control when you arrive in another country.
As a Belgian citizen, you go to the municipality for that. If you live abroad and are registered at a consular post, you can visit one of our consular posts or a municipality in Belgium. You apply at the counter and – in the event of standard delivery – you can pick up your passport within 5 working days. But what exactly happens in the meantime? And what role does the FPS Foreign Affairs play in this?
The municipality or the post will record the application and associated biometric data (photo, fingerprints) in a database called Belpas. For now, municipalities are still scanning in a passport photo. At a later stage, municipalities that choose to do so will be able to take the photo themselves. Our posts are already doing this kind of live enrolment today.
The Belpas database is housed at our FPS. After all, our FPS is responsible for all Belgian passports. To prevent identity fraud, Belpas automatically checks all applications.
For example, the system will compare the applicant's photo with photos they previously used for passports or for their last ID card. In 2022, there were as many as 37,569 facial recognition hits in total, all of which were verified by our FPS.
Fortunately, most error reports are unjustified for various reasons. For example, because the person now wears glasses, there is a major age difference, the older photos are not of sufficient quality or not 'ICAO-compliant'. These are the strict conditions that a passport photo must meet according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, such as 'do not smile'. Still, there were 82 substantiated error reports in 2022.
In addition, Belpas blocks all applications from individuals who have reported a loss or theft of their passport at least twice in the last 5 years. An authentic passport is highly sought after and is sometimes sold by the holder to fraudsters for a lot of money (several thousand euros). These make it available for a fee to lookalikes – people who somewhat resemble the original holder – usually for migration purposes. The holder then fails to report the loss or theft (immediately).
In 2022, there were 1,111 such cases. Our FPS then contacts the person in question through the municipality or consular post and asks them to fill out a sworn declaration with a thorough explanation of (1) the circumstances in which the passports were lost or stolen, and (2) the measures they will take in the future to avoid loss or theft.
If there is a strong suspicion of genuine fraud, our FPS passes the details on to the public prosecutor's office. In 2022, 26 fraud cases were turned over to the public prosecutor's office.
Blacklisted people and risk of child abduction
Applications must pass through another database called Passban. Passban includes all individuals who cannot obtain passports. These may be fugitives who are wanted by the police or have been reported by the prosecutors. But also people who pose a risk to public safety or public order and were blacklisted by CUTA (Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis) or the intelligence services (General Intelligence and Security Service, State Security Service).
If Passban blocks an applicant, our FPS will consult the appropriate authority. If necessary, we will refuse to issue the passport.
Passban includes another category: minors one of whose parents fears abduction by the other parent. A parent concerned about this can file a legalised declaration with the municipality, after which the minor in question will be included in Passban. When that minor applies for a passport, Passban automatically blocks the application.
In this case, our FPS will ask both parents for their written consent. If the parents do not agree, they can ask the family court to make a ruling on the issuance of the passport.
In 2022, Passban blocked a total of 557 applications.
Production and delivery by consortium
The applications that are not stopped by our verification systems – or are unblocked by us after verification – flow through to the Zetes and Thales business consortium. Thales is responsible for producing the blank passports; Zetes personalises them in the applicant's name. The consortium helped with the recent renewal of passports and has a contract until at least 2029.
Zetes is extremely busy with passport personalisation. As many as 814,913 passports were issued in 2022 – over 3,000 for every working day! The business has a shipping company with special, secure vans that stop by every 2 days in each municipality. The super-urgent passports, which must be delivered within 4 hours, are delivered by Zetes directly to the special joint Home and Foreign Affairs counter in Brussels.
Obviously, our FPS leaves nothing to chance and does everything possible to prevent fraud. In addition, the passports renewed in 2022 are extra secure. This is partly because they are expertly printed in 2 layers: a visible offset next to an offset with more details that only show up under UV light. This allowed the integration of as many as 48 security features, compared with 24 in the previous version.