Migration firm investigated over ads promising Vanuatu passports

By Ben Doherty

An international migration firm is being investigated for allegedly promoting access to the Vanuatu’s passports without the government’s authority, in the latest controversy to hit the country’s “citizenship-for-sale” program.

Vanuatu’s citizenship commissioner, Ronald Warsal, has placed Global-Migrate under investigation after access to the scheme was promoted by its Dubai office on the company’s website, and videos and pictures appeared on its Facebook page, showing apparently happy customers holding passports and even national ID cards.

Vanuatu runs citizenship-by-investment programs that allow foreign nationals to buy citizenship for US$130,000 for a single applicant, $80,000 of which goes directly to the government.

The programs have grown rapidly to become one of the Vanuatu government’s chief earners, as its budget bottom-line has been hurt by pandemic shutdowns. In the first six months of 2020, passport sales represented nearly half of Vanuatu’s total income.

But the programs have also attracted controversy, with reports of links to alleged cryptocurrency Ponzi schemes and citizenships being sold to people on Interpol wanted lists.

Income from the programs exceeded $115m in 2020, with more than 840 new citizenship applications granted. An average of 70 new applications were granted each month.

In a statement announcing the investigation in January, Warsal said the online advertisements by Global-Migrate of the government’s “development support programme” were “not unlawful in themselves”, but claimed they were a “distasteful representation of the program”. He said the company was not registered with the Vanuatu National Citizenship Commission or authorised to promote its citizenship program internationally.

“It is of vital importance that we retain our citizenship program for the benefit of Vanuatu … [the] commission has made it its priority to ensure that the program operational standards are raised, with better management and control.”

At the time of publication, Global-Migrate’s website was still promoting access to Vanuatu’s citizenship scheme online, saying “currently Vanuatu passport is the best option in the market due to its easy process, less documents requirement and quick processing time (60-90 days)”.

“The applicant does not need to travel to Vanuatu and there is no language test requirement. We guarantee the passport as long as you do not have any serious criminal convictions.”

Global-Migrate has not responded to questions from the Guardian sent to its Dubai, London and Sydney offices.

A Vanuatu passport
Global-Migrate’s Facebook timeline features dozens of testimonial images, showing letters granting visas to a range of countries. Photograph: Supplied

The company’s Facebook timeline features dozens of testimonial images, showing letters granting visas to Canada, the UK, Portugal, Australia and Poland. In numerous cases, personal data on published documentation is only partially obscured, with the identities of several applicants discernible and even a home address revealed.

The Guardian has not been able to ascertain whether those individuals whose personal data is displayed have consented to publication.

Eight Vanuatu passports were among the images shared on the company’s Facebook account. Seven of them appear to belong to a single family.

A video on the website shows the passports. One of them is held open briefly, exposing the face, name, age and swipe strip.

A certificate of citizenship is also visible in the frame, and although the names are obscured, a tracking number is clearly visible, showing that it was issued through Vanuatu’s development support programme in 2020. Metadata attached to the video file indicates it was created in February 2020.

“Today we would like to share with you that one of our customers received passports of Vanuatu for him and his family of seven. The passports are with us as you can see,” a spokesman on the video, speaking Arabic, says.

“Vanuatu passport is one of the best secondary passports and secondary nationalities, it allows you to travel to 129 countries including UK, Hong Kong, Russia, Singapore and Schengen countries and to Australia through E-Visa. It’s a very powerful passport and you can get it within 45 days, 60 days maximum, with us at Global-Migrate. Thank you and congratulations to our customer from Yemen for receiving Vanuatu for him and his family.”

Several Pacific states, including Tonga, the Marshall Islands and Samoa have run citizenship-by-investment programs as a way to inject foreign capital into narrowly based and fragile economies. Many have been beset by governance problems and illegitimate applications. Nauru’s program caused significant international concern after reports their passports had been sold to suspected members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Vanuatu’s passports are advertised as granting visa-free access to more than 120 countries, including the UK and EU nations, but the country is also promoted online for having no income, corporate or wealth tax.

Vanuatu has only recently completed a comprehensive finance sector reform intended to remove it from the OECD’s “gray list” of countries that are uncooperative or non-compliant in their measures to combat money laundering and financing of terrorism.

It has faced numerous challenges to keep its citizenship-by-investment programs running, including a 2017 investigation that found citizenship could be bought with bitcoin, and alleged links to a massive US Ponzi scheme.

And last year, four Chinese nationals had their Vanuatu citizenship summarily stripped when they were discovered to have been the subject of an Interpol red notice.

Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.
Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Despite these and other problems, the programs remain popular, and their revenues are becoming increasingly central to the country’s fiscal and financial health.

The country has two citizenship-by-investment programs: The development support program and the Vanuatu contribution programme. The development support program was instituted in 2016 and is open only to ni-Vanuatu agents who meet selection criteria. There are more than 90 existing agents.

Law firms, accountancies and professional services companies with decades of experience are listed, along with a construction company, a cleaning and catering firm, and what appears to be a fried chicken shop.

The majority of passports are sold in Hong Kong by PRG ImmiMart, sole provider for the separate Vanuatu contribution programme. It has not been implicated in any of the controversies surrounding Vanuatu’s citizenship programs.

Inside Vanuatu, monthly citizenship revenues continue to grow steadily, while tax revenues have fallen.

Mid-year finance data shows that tax revenues are lagging behind even the revised forecasts by roughly 6.2%. Citizenship revenues meanwhile have exceeded budget projections consistently since the programmes were instituted in 2016. For the first six months of 2020, citizenship-by-investment sales represented 49.4% of all government income, treasury figures show.

Since the beginning of 2018, Vanuatu’s citizenship-by-investment programs have generated more than $312m.

Jassar Al-Tahat contributed to this report