Vanuatuan citizenship has become a topic of much controversy with its passport scheme that is allowing dodgy individuals to seek refuge in the country.
Following a recent story by the Pacific Advocate, the Guardian has also run a major investigative feature, reporting that a “golden passports” scheme run by Vanuatu saw more than 2,000 people, including a slew of disgraced businesspeople and individuals sought by police in countries all over the world, purchase citizenship in 2020 – and with it visa-free access to the European Union and the United Kingdom.
“Among those granted citizenship through the country’s development support programme were a Syrian businessman with United States sanctions against his businesses, a suspected North Korean politician, an Italian businessman accused of extorting the Vatican, a former member of a notorious Australian motorcycle gang and South African brothers accused of a US$3.6 billion cryptocurrency heist,” the Guardian reported.
The passport scheme allows foreign nationals to purchase citizenship for US$130,000 in a process that typically takes just over a month – all without ever setting foot in the country.
Marketed by agencies as one of the fastest, cheapest and most lax “golden passport” schemes anywhere in the world, the development support programme grants unfettered, visa-free access to 130 countries including the UK and EU nations.
Vanuatu also operates as a tax haven, with no income, corporate or wealth tax.
Experts have warned the scheme is ripe for exploitation, creating a back door for access to the EU and UK and allowing transnational criminal syndicates to establish a base in the Pacific. Vanuatu’s taxation laws make the country an attractive site for money laundering.
The passports programme, which netted the Vanuatu government more than US$116m last year, has been highly controversial since its relaunch in 2017.
But until now, knowledge of who has bought passports through the scheme has been murky.
A series of internal government documents obtained by the Guardian via the country’s freedom of information scheme, details the name and nationality of every recipient of a Vanuatu passport through the country’s development support programme and Vanuatu contribution programme in 2020 and January 2021.
On July 6, the Pacific advocate reported that Vanuatu’s Opposition Leader Ralph Regenvanu criticised the Government for its cash-for-citizenship programme which has already seen a former Indian national wanted in his home country, granted Vanuatuan citizenship.
He warned the Government last year about the possibility of naturalising international criminals utilising the Immigration Office Development Support Programme.
“This opens the door for international criminals and persons who have been stripped of their citizenship in other countries for nefarious activities to more easily become citizens of Vanuatu,” Mr Regenvanu told the Pacific Advocate.
“Given that the cost of a single citizenship under the Development Support Programme (DSP) is upwards of $US80,000, no genuine economic refugees would be able to access citizenship through this new doorway.”
“Ronald Warsal, Chairman of the Citizenship Commission and also Vice President of the Vanuaaku Pati, has given a three-year exclusive contract to a company belonging to his close associate, Ms Thi Tam Ghoiset, to find and give up to 300 citizenships to ‘nomads, stateless people and people in difficulty’,” Mr Regenvanu said.
“Not only does this new initiative severely jeopardise Vanuatu’s national security, it also is in breach of existing procedures for granting citizenship where the applicant has to show an existing citizenship – passport and ID card – before they can be eligible for a Vanuatu citizenship.
“This announcement also will almost certainly result in the European Union cancelling its visa waiver agreement with Vanuatu, under which Vanuatu citizens have visa-free access to all 27 member countries of the EU.
He said the Opposition was extremely concerned with this new development, and is asking Prime Minister (Bob) Loughman – President of the Vanuaaku Party – to confirm publicly if this is official Government policy, “or just another of Mr Warsal’s many infamous and dubious private money-making ventures.”
However in a remarkable twist the opposition leader claimed on Pacific Advocate’s Facebook page that he was taken out of context, despite providing quotes to our reporter.
“Misleading….I was not talking about the citizenship program, I was talking about the new program of current Govt – announced last year – to give citizenships to “stateless” people,” he wrote.
This publication immediately reached out to Mr Regenvanu through our reporter and on Facebook however we received no response. We can assume that he decided that his quotes were in fact accurate and he is backtracking. We stand by our story and his comments and about-face only raise more questions on whether any politician in Vanuatu is willing to stop this practice.
Maybe this Pacific Advocate reader from Port Vila summed it up best. “The Hon Opposition Leader main 2016 election campaign was entirely based on removing the program. He was in Government 2016-2020 and has done nothing… Sadly it’s all about Vanuatu’s Politics (sic).”
The Pacific Advocate also approached the office of Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Bob Loughman for comment but received no response.