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Interior ministry agrees to stricter checks on golden visa programme (Updated)

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File photo: Audit office of the Republic

By Tom Cleaver and Nikolaos Prakas

The interior ministry said on Thursday that they agree on the recommendations for stricter checks made in an audit office report on golden visa programme but did not comment on the fact that an audit service report called for the government to consider abolishing it all together.

In their response to the report, the ministry said that it agreed with the recommendations to toughen criteria for the fast-track visa programme to third country nationals, saying that they have already been dealing with streamlining the services since taking up the role as the new government.

“The findings recorded in the audit service’s special report had already been identified by the ministry itself when it assumed governance, on the basis of Moneyval’s relevant indications of the risk of abuse that existed due to the weaknesses of the programme,” the ministry said.

According to the ministry, it was for this reason that minister Constantinos Ioannou called for immediate measures to bolster the programme, by making criteria for the visas stricter.

“The purpose of introducing stricter criteria was to correct the distortions that existed and to better and more efficiently supervise the programme, so as to ensure its investment purpose [was met],” the ministry said.

It added that back in May the cabinet decided to modify the criteria, to streamline the programme and limit is exploitation.

The new criteria, the ministry added, require applicants to submit data on an annual basis proving that the beneficiary still maintains the initial investment and the required income.

“In cases where the necessary data is not submitted, his/her and his/her family’s immigration permit is cancelled,” the ministry said.

The criteria also state that it is required to provide a clean criminal record from the investor’s country of origin every three years, as well as “the provision of evidence that the funds for the investment come exclusively from the applicants themselves and/or their spouse and not by third parties, ending in this way the phenomena of abuse that were observed, mainly to avoid the sanctions imposed due to the war in Ukraine.”

The ministry has also given instruction to intensify checks on beneficiaries of the programme, so when violations are found the visa can be revoked.

However, earlier on Thursday the audit service urged the interior ministry to “seriously consider the possibility of abolishing the golden visa programme”.

They added that if the programme is not abolished, the civil registry and migration department should “strictly apply the relevant legislation on the conditions for granting and maintaining visas … and carry out regular checks to verify compliance with the relevant criteria, proceeding to revoke visas where violations of the criteria are found.”

The recommendations come following the publishing of a report on an investigation into the golden visa scheme, wherein people who invest €300,000 in Cyprus are granted permanent residence in the country. To date, around 5,800 people have been granted permanent residence via the scheme.

The Audit Service’s investigation into a randomly selected sample of golden visas found that the civil registry and migration department “does not ensure compliance with the provisions for cancellation of residence permits in cases where investors acquire permanent residence in another country or remain outside the Republic for more than two years.”

In addition, they said the department “does not carry out any regular checks to verify compliance with the criteria after the residence permit is granted.”

They also found that the department was issuing residence permits in cases where investors had bought real estate without being issued title deeds, and where only “unofficial proof of payment” had been presented.

Additionally, they found that one person had been granted a residence permit after presenting evidence of an investment made by a relative.

They added, “given the large number and seriousness of the randomly selected sample, we expressed the opinion that one can reasonably conclude there has been sloppiness in the drafting and implementation of the programme in general and the inadequacy of the checks and balances.”

For this reason, they said, “the interior ministry should seriously consider abolishing the programme altogether.”

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