Newspaper article International New York Times

Cash-for-Citizenship in Malta Stirs Security Fears ; Program Could Allow Criminals or Terrorists into Europe, Critics Say

Newspaper article International New York Times

Cash-for-Citizenship in Malta Stirs Security Fears ; Program Could Allow Criminals or Terrorists into Europe, Critics Say

Article excerpt

Critics fear the program could open a door into Europe and the United States for swindlers, criminals or terrorists.

A program in Malta that offers citizenship for cash is raising concern among officials who fear it could open a back door into Europe and the United States for swindlers, criminals or terrorists who can afford the price tag of up to $1.57 million.

The program, which was begun in February, has already attracted interest from hundreds of applicants, including Chinese billionaires, wealthy Russians and executives from countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Libya.

Citing worries about security, opposition leaders in Malta, a Mediterranean island 50 miles south of Sicily, moved last month to block the plan. But the motion was defeated, and the governing Labour Party, which has a large majority, is forging ahead with the program, which it hopes will raise $1.9 billion for development projects and job creation.

Though Maltese officials say the plan will attract foreign investment and lift the economy, critics fear that in a race for cash, the screening process will be shortchanged -- particularly since the tiny nation has outsourced the vetting of citizenship applicants to a private company that stands to make tens of millions of dollars in commissions if applicants are accepted.

European Union officials are among those most concerned. Though selling citizenship outright is rare, Malta's move comes as a growing number of European countries buffeted by economic hard times, including Portugal, Spain and Greece, are dangling the possibility of residency to high-flying foreigners in return for substantial investments. The United States also offers residency, though not citizenship, for entrepreneurs who invest at least $1 million and meet other criteria.

Opponents of the program in Malta say most potential applicants have no interest in Malta, per se, but covet a European Union passport, which would allow them to live or work elsewhere in the union, including in London or Paris. Under threat of legal action by the European Commission, the union's executive body, Malta tightened the law in January and added a one-year residency requirement before an applicant can get a passport.

Jason Azzopardi, home affairs spokesman for the opposition National Party, said the news that two passengers on a missing Malaysian jet were traveling on stolen passports, despite having been vetted by immigration and security officials, underlined the danger of passports' being abused. "The fear is that people with serious criminal records, scam artists or even terrorists could buy their way into the country and use Malta as an illegal gateway for Europe," he said.

The citizenship offer -- which will enable travel within the European Union's 27 other member states and visa-free trips to 69 countries outside the bloc, including the United States -- comes at a steep price: $891,000 in cash, and up to $685,000 in property and investments. …

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