SINGAPORE: From smoking devices hidden in boxes of toy blocks to drugs concealed in packages declared as clothes, more contraband is being detected in air cargo amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA).
A total of 19 million air cargo consignments were cleared at the Changi Airfreight Centre and Airport Logistics Park between January and September, an increase of about 60 per cent from the same period last year.
At the same time, the number of contraband cases also surged from 700 to 3,200.
When it comes to such consignments, low-value e-commerce goods are of particular interest to the ICA, said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Cheong Kai Kiong, who is in charge of operations at the Changi Airfreight Centre and Airport Logistics Park.
Most of these low-value goods hail from China, but can also come from other countries such as the United Kingdom, Malaysia and the United States.
“The COVID-19 situation and the circuit breaker has led to a paradigm shift in the buying habits of our residents. Many are going online to make purchases, and these purchases are subsequently imported into Singapore,” said DAC Cheong, who also manages the ICA’s parcel post section.
With the increase in shipments, a spike in various contraband items has also been detected. Many are hidden among inconspicuous household items such as snacks, lightbulbs and flasks, he said.
Some people may have a "false sense of security" by ordering these contraband items online instead of smuggling them through checkpoints, DAC Cheong noted.
HOW CHECKS WORK
All inbound air cargo consignments and priority mail pass through the Changi Airfreight Centre or Airport Logistics Park.
Upon arrival in Singapore, planes hand over their cargo to authorised ground handling agents. These agents make arrangements with freight forwarders, who will transport the cargo through the Changi Airfreight Centre or Airport Logistics Park, both of which are located minutes from the tarmac. At these two locations, vehicles transporting cargo are first required to pass through an unmanned radiographic scanning portal.
“The scanning portal is two-in-one – it has X-ray and also radiation scanning,” explained DAC Cheong. “So when a vehicle drives through the portal, it will have a scanned image of the cargo on board and also a radiation scan … if there is something that emits radiation beyond certain thresholds, the alarm will be emitted.”
Checks at the portal usually take no more than a minute.
Vehicles then move on to the primary clearance booths, which are located metres away from the scanning portal. This is where ICA officers process documents and refer vehicles for secondary inspection if required.
At the primary clearance booths, officers also analyse the X-ray images taken at the scanning portal to make sure that the items within the vehicles match their description stated in accompanying documents.
Given that permits are not required to import low-value e-commerce goods, officers will refer them to secondary inspection bays where cargo is opened up for physical inspection and if required, X-rays of the individual consignments.
READ: Nearly S$30,000 worth of e-vaporisers, accessories seized after detection at Changi Airfreight Centre
This is where Checkpoint Inspector 1 (CI1) Radin Helmie Osman and his team spring into action. Earlier this month, CI1 Radin and his team stopped 4,000 heat sticks from being smuggled into the country. The heat sticks – heated tobacco products powered by battery – were concealed in boxes of toy blocks.
“There has been a trend where they conceal them in toys, what they declare as toys,” CI1 Radin said. “When we did a scan (at the portal), it was quite close to the actual item because of the uniformity of the object ... (But) the density is slightly darker, because it is more dense than the blocks.”
The lorry containing these boxes was directed for further checks after CI1 Radin’s team noticed anomalies in the scanned images. Upon further screening of the parcels, the heat sticks were detected.
“I think these smugglers are improvising their methods. it's a new modus operandi so we are still learning,” said CI1 Radin.
The case has since been referred to the Health Sciences Authority for investigation.
Cases like these represent “very conscious attempts” at smuggling contraband into Singapore through various checkpoints, noted DAC Cheong.
READ: More than 40kg of sexual enhancement drugs found hidden in packages at Changi Airfreight Centre
“They think they can pull (the) wool over our eyes to make it look very innocent and bring it in. They want to make it more difficult for the ICA to detect.
“Despite the increase in cargo volume, our officers are taking this positively and have remained steadfast to the mission,” said DAC Cheong.