The Golden Visa

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Situationer

M Ziauddin

Once not so long ago the green passport was a universally respected travel document. You could go to any country except the ‘self-excepted’ Israel without any unnecessary hassle.
Today, there is not a single country in the world where you can wheeze through the immigration counter waving your passport. You would be lucky if you could make it past the immigration and customs gates without suffering extremely intrusive body searchand most often than not at least half-a-day long third degree interrogation.
This is perhaps one all-important reason why most Pakistani businessmen, visitors going abroad frequently to meet their near and dear ones or for medical treatment and those fond of world trotting wish to acquire dual nationality.
But for most Pakistanis seeking another country’s citizenship is neither easy nor financially affordable. However, for filthy rich Pakistanis, it’s a different story, as a growing number of cash-strapped countries invite them in — as long as they bring plenty of money.
This multi-billion-dollar global golden visa industry helps those with money to obtain residence permits, or even citizenships, in other countries by agreeing to invest specified amounts. The filthy rich from Russia, Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan, and Chinaare seen visiting these trading centers where deals are struck for sale and purchase of Golden visas.
In the Golden Visas project, reporters for the Organization of Crime and Corruption Reporting Project(OCCRP) probe the shadowy business of selling visa-free travel and even citizenship to the rich, including some who would rather not say where that money comes from.
This report based on the findings of the OCCRP reporters was produced as part of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a partnership between OCCRP and Transparency International, in cooperation with Global Witness.
The Golden Visas, born more than 30 years ago as a way to pump money into the faltering economy of the Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, have mushroomed into a secretive, multi-billion-dollar global industry involving more than 20 countries.
It’s hard to be precise about what constitutes a Golden Visa program, because the rules vary from country to country and most governments try to keep the details under wraps.
But the underlying premise is simple: For a sizeable investment, wealthy people can zip to the front of the immigration line for a growing list of attractive countries, including some in the European Union and the United States.
Proponents say this reflects the dawn of a truly universal society as “global citizens” enjoy the freedom of choosing where to live, how to travel, and where to invest.
Critics say the system is vulnerable to corruption and outrageously unfair, offering the rich a freedom of movement denied to not so rich – and all too often letting them evade taxes along the way.
Investigators add that second or third passports are very useful tools for criminals, tax evaders, and money launderers who may need new identities or bolt-holes on short notice, as well as complaisant banking systems, accountants, and law firms to help handle money that can’t be easily explained.
Reporters for OCCRP, working in partnership with Transparency International, took a look at how a dozen countries are handling Golden Visa programs and found common themes of secrecy, money, and insider deals that benefit those connected to power.
Documents obtained by OCCRP and The Guardian include several hundred people who have taken advantage of programs that allow high-net-worth individuals to acquire Cypriot citizenship and, with it, the right to freely travel, work, and settle in the European Union.
As reported by The Guardian last September, the Cyprus version of the program requires investment of €2 million in property, or €2.5 million in companies or government bonds, in exchange for citizenship.
According to figures provided to the Cypriot parliament, since 2008, Cyprus has awarded citizenship to 1,685 foreign investors — many from the former Soviet Union, as well as from China, Iran and Saudi Arabia — and 1,651 of their family members. The investment inflow from the scheme is estimated at more than €4.5 billion.It also raises serious questions about the background checks carried out on applicants by Cypriot authorities.
Malta is offering Golden Visas for sale under a scheme designed to entice people with money.
Each applicant must pay the government €650,000 to file the main application, plus €25,000 for a spouse; €25,000 for each dependent child under 18; €50,000 for each child 18-26; and €50,000 for each dependent over 55.
A family with two young children and two grandparents would face an initial bill of €850,000.
Applicants must also invest €150,000 in five-year government bonds and either buy a property worth €350,000 or rent one for at least €16,000 per year for five years.
Applicants must also pass “due diligence” background checks into their criminal history, how much money they have, and whether it was legally obtained.
A government report on the program says that 45 percent of Golden Visa applicants between July 2016 and June 2017 were from “Europe.” With no further detail, it’s unclear whether they come from European Union (EU) countries or from countries such as Russia, which are not in the EU. At considerable personal risk, journalists in Malta have worked to pierce the veil obscuring who is coming into the country and how they are doing it. The best-known of these was Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb on Oct. 16, 2017, after publishing multiple stories alleging corruption and irregularities in the Golden Visa program.
Saudi Arabians have also invested in Maltese citizenship. The best-known is Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman and once chief owner of the Middle East BroadcastingCenter(MBC), founded in London in 1991 and now the largest media company in the Middle East and North Africa.
Al-Ibrahim obtained his Maltese citizenship in 2016. In November 2017, he was swept up in a Saudi anti-corruption raid ordered by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and detained at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh with about 200 wealthy Saudis, including at least 11 princes. He was released in January, reportedly after a financial settlement was reached.
Many people flock to Cannes, France to obtain Golden Visas. Last October, a swarm of real estate agents, tax advisors, and “special” lawyers gathered for an “International Emigration & Luxury Property Expo” (“Cannes IELP Expo” for short), which caters to the Golden Visa trade.
The Golden Visas have become increasingly popular in many other countries, including Canada and the US. A number of European countries have also established their own investment visa programs.
The standards vary. While Malta and Cyprus freely offer passports in exchange for investment, others in the EU require applicants to first obtain temporary residence permits which, after a few years, can be converted to permanent status. Then, if the investors have established real connections to the country, they can apply for citizenship and a passport.In the US, for example, applicants must create a certain number of jobs in areas targeted for economic development under the EB-5 visa program.
The main reasons to relocate, some say, are education, [giving] their kids a better life; and personal security.
Critics of the Golden Visa industry question who is buying these passports in reality, and whether all the necessary checks are being conducted. They note that in some cases, the “better lives” for children and enhanced personal security are acquired by people who bear responsibility for poor security and bad education in their own countries.
And while many may simply want the convenience of visa-free travel to destinations like the US or European Union (EU), others have darker motives such as tax avoidance, money-laundering, or dodging prosecution in other jurisdictions.

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