While doing some research about freedom of movement and the history of passports, I came across an image on Wikipedia depicting a warning sign next to a toilet door at London Stansted Airport:

Stansted toilet door with Home Office warning



The warning sign reads:


Passengers who fail to produce a passport or other travel document at the UK Immigration Control for themselves or a dependent child, with whom they are travelling, risk prosecution.

Any person found guilty of this offence is liable to imprisonment for up to two years and / or a fine.

Do not destroy or dispose of any passport or similar document that you, or a child with you have used to travel to the United Kingdom.

Under what circumstances would a visitor be tempted to destroy their travel document(s) upon arrival at the airport?

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    For a particularly notable example of this situation, see the case of baseball player Jose Abreu, who said he ate his fake passport on a flight to the United States so he wouldn't be caught traveling on a forged document. Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 7:39
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    The general answer is: You only destroy voluntarily what is not useful to you. Now you can start constructing scenarios. (That line of thought does not come easily to the usual participants on this web site, who are from wealthy democratic countries and whose travel documents are a means to go almost anywhere.) Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 13:05
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    Side note: this is also part of the reason why major destinations of illegal migration record the fingerprints of all applicants. As long as they can trace you back to your original identity they'll be able to deport you or at least try. Otherwise they're stuck with a suspicious illegal immigrant who is in a legal limbo
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:36
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    @yochannah According to Jose Abreu, a passport goes well with Heineken. Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 8:30
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    @SpehroPefhany That will depend on the route and airline, ranging from "complete scans and machine readable data from passport and visa" to "they waved something that looked like government issued ID at the point when they got on the plane". Although the later should only be happening in places like the Schengen area where it doesn't matter so much.
    – origimbo
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 15:31

4 Answers 4


Why would a visitor destroy their travel document?

Not all visitors are genuine visitors with proper authorizations.

Many asylum seekers destroy their ID before presenting them to the border control in order to avoid getting deported back to their original country.

Then some people destroy their ID as soon as they get any hint of oncoming trouble with forgery, then they start making excuses about which document it was and how it got lost.

Those passports facilitate in their removal from the UK if their entry is denied. When they are gone down the drain, they make the process a little complicated.

A random example of such a complication

RAWALPINDI: Pakistani authorities on Wednesday refused to accept six migrants after the FIA found that they had been illegally deported to Pakistan from the UK.

About 36 others, who possessed travel documents, were accepted by Pakistani authorities – 34 of whom were allowed to go home after brief questioning. Two others were sent to the Anti-Human Trafficking Cell.

On Thursday December 3, the authorities refused to accept 49 illegal Pakistani immigrants who had been deported by Greek authorities. Only 19 people were accepted following verification. The remaining 30 deportees were sent back to Greece on the special flight that brought them to Pakistan.

(the emphasis is mine)

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 states that

(1) A person commits an offence if at a leave or asylum interview he does not have with him an immigration document which

  • (a) is in force,and
  • (b) satisfactorily establishes his identity and nationality or citizenship.

(2) A person commits an offence if at a leave or asylum interview he does not have with him, in respect of any dependent child with whom he claims to be travelling or living, an immigration document which —

  • (a) is in force, and
  • (b) satisfactorily establishes the child’s identity and nationality or citizenship.


Its increasingly becoming difficult for that technique to work everywhere. This notice is one of the steps towards that.

Read this excellent flyer by Refugee Action Coalition to learn more. It includes

Sometimes asylum seekers need false identity documents to be able to get away safely, in this case, they destroy the documents once they no longer need them so they or the people who helped them get the false documents don’t get into trouble

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    @reirab They'd have no choice since they would need to agree to before gaining permission to fly into the country and land at the airport. In both cases, the deporting governments appear to have specially chartered a plane to transport the migrants to Pakistan. It's likely that the airplane operators would have fully expected that they would be forced to bring a few of the deportees back and negotiated their contracts accordingly.
    – Ross Ridge
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 20:25
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    @Evgeny according to the legislation above if you can provide a valid reason it may not be a crime but IANAL. But the travel related aspect of your question i can try to answer. If your passport was going to expire during your flight there is a high chance you wouldn't be on that flight in the first place and would have been refused boarding. Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 6:18
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    @Damon There are far too many assumptions in your comment, as well as a misunderstanding of terminology. You seem to be using the term "asylum seeker" to mean "refugee", but these are not the same thing.
    – JBentley
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 13:00
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    @Damon They are seeking asylum, but not necessarily for legitimate reasons (although sometimes they may believe they are for legitimate reasons even if the relevant authorities don't agree with them); One could claim that they're a refugee fleeing bad music tastes and apply for asylum on those grounds, but that doesn't mean that said person will be offered asylum to escape bad music. Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 17:17
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    @Damon a murderer running from justice by going to another country would be an asylum seeker. Exploitation does not disclude them from the definition.
    – user67118
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 18:05

A friend of mine, who was doing part-time work for the French government, was called in to help interview North Korean asylum seekers. Turns out they were not from Korea, North or South: they were Chinese, and didn't speak one word of Korean. My friend, who happens to speak Chinese too, found out they were native speakers of Chinese, most probably from Dongbei.

They had destroyed their Chinese passports after arriving in France, claiming to have destroyed their North Korean passports so they wouldn't be sent back there. Needless to say, their asylum was denied...

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    A fantastic real-world example.
    – Fattie
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 21:24

To expand on Hanky Panky's answer, a country can only remove or deport a person to a country that cannot turn them away, which in reality means a country where they hold nationality and thus have the right to travel documents from.

If the person presents to immigration with a passport and is refused entry, they can be removed by ways of the airline - either a return flight to the origin country, or to the national's home country, at the airline's expense.

If the person presents to immigration with no travel documents at all, they have to be held in the U.K., which increases their chances of speaking to a lawyer, getting legal help, escaping etc.

Also, minors are treated differently than adults - if an 18 year old can claim they are younger, that claim cannot be rejected at face value and the case will be treated as a minor, meaning it's easier to stay. With a travel document, these claims can be rejected easily.


Watch UK Border Force, and you will see that many deportation cases turn on whether the person's travel documents can be found. So when they round them up at a workplace, say, they investigate to try to figure out where they live, then they enter that domicile and search it exhaustively.

If they are able to find a genuine passport, it's a straightforward affair -- into the detention van they go, and they are detained and deported fairly quickly.

If they are unable to find travel documents, that puts them in a quandary. They can't deport them to a country they only seem to be from. They must get the person's details, contact the foreign country, and try to get the foreign country to confirm they are a citizen and send over travel documents.

A country like Canada would cooperate, however a country like Bangladesh has a pretty good deal: their citizen is implanted an affluent first world country, making a fantastic wage (by home standards), and sending much of it home to Bangladesh. So there is a perverse incentive for Bangladesh to not help the UK sort out their citizenship.

On the TV program, you often see the Border Force give them a strongly worded admonishment not to seek employment in the UK... And resignedly let them go. Because realistically they do not have the detainee space to hold people for the extended time it might take for the home country to produce.

And the people seek work immediately, of course.

You can imagine the same occurs for people caught at the airport; the government can't detain them potentially forever, so they release them into the general public, with that same stern admonishment.

So for someone illegally in the country who aims to stay, it is definitely in their interest for their proper passport to disappear. I could see a traveler wanting to retain it in a secret place for when they want to travel, but that is impossible at the airport.

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    Some countries don't have very good control over their travel documents or much in the way of accounting for their citizens. Aside from the "perverse incentive" problem, there may simply be no way for a country, especially a poorer country without much infrastructure around government documents, to establish whether someone is a citizen. This is doubly true if the individual in question gives a false name and/or doesn't cooperate with the process. There's not much the UK can do if another country simply can't account for a purported citizen to send him back. Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 8:28
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    That TV show is government sponsored propaganda. They have control over what is shown, so they can promote their message about immigration.
    – vclaw
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 20:27
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    @vclaw: What do you think is "their message about immigration", with respect to the topic of this question? Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 21:00
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    @Separatrix my bad. I do keep a list of terms that have unintended inferences for UK readers, but I left it at home in my fanny pack. Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 15:50
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    @Separatrix while I'd definitely heard of people getting thrown in the paddy wagon, "black maria" is completely new to me! :)
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:18

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