PLANES landing at Dublin Airport are being routinely searched to root out illegal immigrants intending to pass themselves off as children in the hope that they will be taken into care, rather than deported.
The Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) has stepped up its monitoring of incoming flights in response to what it says is a growing phenomenon in which young adults, many from China, are trying to slip through Ireland's immigration laws by posing as children.
Under Irish law, children under the age of 18 who arrive in Ireland unaccompanied gain automatic entry by being placed in the care of the Health Service Executive.
The GNIB claims to have encountered several cases in which non-nationals -- mostly Chinese -- are boarding flights in their home country as normal but then destroying their travel documents and passports before landing. They present to immigration desks at the airport as unaccompanied, undocumented minors.
Detectives have now started searching aircraft before passengers are allowed to disembark, scouring rubbish bins, toilets and seat backs for discarded passports or travel documents.
Chief Supt John O'Driscoll said that while spot checks of aircraft had been carried out to a lesser degree in the past, 'gate-stopping' has now been significantly stepped up since Christmas.
He said: "This month alone, we have examples where we searched the toilets and found passports in rubbish bins and remains of tickets that were torn up.
"Typically, documents, such as plane tickets and passports, were being destroyed in the aircraft.
"They (passengers) would come in and present as being undocumented and claim to be minors.
"In some instances, they may have been minors, but in many other cases, they were clearly adults."
The inquiries emerged as part of Operation Snow, which was set up to investigate child trafficking in Ireland after the arrest of a major trafficker, Peter Kwame Sarfo, in Drogheda. Sarfo, who was from Sierra Leone, was wanted by Dutch authorities for allegedly trafficking children from Africa to Europe, where they were forced into prostitution.
No evidence has emerged to suggest that Sarfo trafficked children into Ireland but each case of an unaccompanied child arriving in Ireland is investigated.
Some cases have turned out to be children who were smuggled into the country so that they could be re-united with parents or family members already here.
During the operation, gardai came across a significant number of Chinese minors arriving undocumented and unaccompanied, particularly in November and December, when there is a greater demand for catering staff.
Chief Supt O'Driscoll claimed the detections of adults posing as children had resulted in a decrease in the number of unaccompanied children being referred to the HSE by gardai.
In 2009, 143 separated children seeking asylum were referred to the HSE.