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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Struggling Caribbean islands selling citizenship

KINGSTON, JAMAICA: Hadi Mezawi has never set foot on 

the Caribbean island of Dominica, has never seen its rainforests 

or black-sand beaches. But he's one of its newest citizens. 

Without leaving his home in the United Arab Emirates, the 


Palestinian man recently received a brand new Dominican 

passport after sending a roughly $100,000 contribution to the 

tropical nation half a world away. 

``At the start I was a little worried that it might be a fraud, but 


the process turned out to be quite smooth and simple. Now, I am 

a Dominican,'' said Mezawi, who like many Palestinians had 

not  been recognized as a citizen of any country. That passport 

will  help with travel for his job with a Brazilian food 

processing 

company, he said by telephone from Dubai. 

Turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has led to a surge 


of interest in programs that let investors buy citizenship or 

residence in countries around the world in return for a healthy 

contribution or investment. Most are seeking a second passport 

for hassle-free travel or a ready escape hatch in case things get 

worse at home. 

Nowhere is it easier or faster than in the minuscule Eastern 


Caribbean nations of Dominica and St. Kitts & Nevis. 

It's such a booming business that a Dubai-based company is 


building a 4-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) community in 

St. Kitts where investors can buy property and citizenship at 

the same time. In its first phase, some 375 shareholders will get 

citizenship by investing $400,000 each in the project, which is 

expected to include a 200-room hotel and a mega-yacht marina. 

Others will get passports for buying one of 50 condominium 

units. 

``The more they fight over there, the more political problems 


there are, the more applications we get here,'' said Victor 

Doche, managing director of another company that offers four 

condominium projects where approved buyers are granted 

citizenship in St. Kitts, which is less than twice the size of 

Washington D.C. 

It's impossible to say how many people have used the cash for 


citizenship programs. Officials in both countries declined to 

respond when asked by The Associated Press. 

``Why do I have to speak on that?'' said Levi Peter, Dominica's 


attorney general. ``I have no explanation to give to AP.'' 

But Bernard Wiltshire, a former Dominica attorney general, 


said there were already around 3,000 economic citizens when 

he left government about a decade ago. The country now has 

roughly 73,000 inhabitants in all. 

``Investor visa'' or citizenship programs are offered by many 


nations, including the United States, Canada, Britain and 

Austria. But the Caribbean countries offer a fast path to 

citizenship at a very low cost. The whole process, including 

background checks, can take as little as 90 days in St. Kitts. 

And there's no need to ever live on the islands, or even visit. 

A foreigner can qualify for citizenship in St. Kitts with a 


$250,000 donation to a fund for retired sugar workers or with a 

minimum real estate investment of $400,000. The minimum 

contribution in Dominica is $100,000. 

By contrast, a U.S. program allows visas for a $1 million 


investment in a U.S. business employing at least 10 people or 

$500,000 in designated economically depressed areas. The 

investor can apply for permanent residence in two years, and 

seek citizenship after five more. Demand in Canada is so great 

that the country stopped accepting new applications in July. 

A Dominica passport holder can travel without a visa to more 


than 50 countries, while a St. Kitts passport provides visa-free 

travel to 139 countries, including all of the European Union. 

That's a big deal to people in countries from which travel is 

restricted or whose passports are treated with suspicion. 

Critics say the programs undermine the integrity of national 


passports and have security risks. While there are no known 

cases of terrorists using the programs, experts say that's a 

possibility with many visa arrangements anywhere. 

``No level of scrutiny can completely guarantee that terrorists 


will not make use of these programs, just as background checks 

cannot eliminate the risk that dangerous individuals will not 

enter the country (the U.S.) on tourist visas, as students or as 

refugees,'' said Madeleine Sumption, a senior policy analyst at 

the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. 

Canada imposed visa requirements on Dominica citizens a 


decade ago after complaining that suspected criminals had used 

island passports. And in 2010, Britain said it was considering 

visa requirements for Dominicans, prompting the island to 

review its 20-year-old economic citizenship program. Dominica 

never publicly released the results of its review and Britain took 

no action. 

St. Kitts closed its program to Iranians in December 2011, 


shortly after Iranian students stormed the British Embassy in 

Tehran. Iranians had earlier been a major source of applicants, 

according to Doche. 

Some locals worry the programs could get out of hand if 


conditions worsen abroad. 

``There could be a flood of people with our passports relocating 


here,'' said Dominica's Wiltshire. ``What are we going to do 

then? Really, this program must be halted. It's dangerous to us 

and dangerous for our neighbors.'' 

St. Kitts opposition leader Mark Brantley said the citizenship 


program was bringing much needed revenue to the debt-

swamped islands, but he said there should be better oversight 

and public accounting. ``We do not see that sufficient controls 

are currently in place to ensure that bad people, for want of 

better language, do not get access to our citizenship,'' he said. 

It's not just economic refugees who are interested in the 


programs. 

American Neil Strauss wrote of securing citizenship in St. Kitts 


in his 2009 book on survivalist preparedness, ``Emergency: This 

Book Will Save Your Life.'' 

``The same way we have a backup drive for our computer in 


case the hard drive explodes, I just felt like I wanted a backup 

citizenship in case the same thing happened to my country,'' 

Strauss said during a phone call from his home in Los Angeles. 

Like most economic citizens of St. Kitts, he rents out his island 

property. 

Some other struggling Eastern Caribbean islands are looking at 


adopting the St. Kitts model. 

Antigua & Barbuda is launching its own citizenship program to 


drum up money. And leaders of both main parties on the poor 

island of Grenada have hinted they may revive a program that 

was suspended after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, due to 

fears that local passports could be mistakenly sold to terrorists, 

In Dubai, Mezawi said he keeps meeting fellow Dominica 


passport holders, mostly people of Iranian and Palestinian 

background. 

``After the Arab Spring, it's become more difficult for us to 


really travel around the world, even in the Arab region,'' he 

said. ``But being a citizen of Dominica, it is much, much better 

for us.''
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