Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

SOUTH PACIFIC: Lucrative Passport Trade Reaches the Courts

Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Aug 28 1998 (IPS) - The sale of passports has been raking in money for many South Pacific island nations, but the controversy over this policy has finally reached the courts.

Earlier this month, government prosecutors in the Marshall Islands filed charges against a Taiwanese businessman for possession of forged or irregular passports of that countrHuang, brings into focus an issue that refuses to go away in the region, however much the island leaders denying any wrongdoing.

The lucrative trade in passports came into the spotlight early last year, when a number of South Pacific countries began advertising offers of citizenship in Asian newspapers to lure in investments from Asian businessmen.

The trade soon led to heated debates on allegations of corruption involving government officials and Asian agents. Along with the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Western Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu have all been involved in the passport business at one time or another.

While some countries have denied the existence of such a trade, others like Tuvalu and Kiribati have openly admitted that it is a good revenue raiser for their tiny economies dependent on foreign aid.

Late last year, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu boasted that his country could make 7.3 million dollars a year within two years from this business, which would make it the nation’s biggest foreign exchange earner.

A Tuvalu passport went for 11,000 dollars each. “We are not selling our identity. This is a business development scheme that is very Tuvaluan,” the prime minister said.

Kiribati’s president Teburoro Tito has also said his country sells its passports at 10,000 dollars each, in exchange for investment, and makes more than a million dollars a year.

The trade, however, has hurt the reputation of Kiribati’s passports, which Australia, New Zealand and the United States refuse to recognise.

Vanuatu officials also admitted last year that up to 150 of its passports have been sold overseas, most of them supposedly to Chinese recipients in Taiwan, Macau and the People’s Republic of China willing to invest in the South Pacific island.

In Western Samoa, a scandal erupted last year when a Chinese businessman was arrested at Apia international airport for carrying a local passport. Since he was charged, five immigration officials have been suspended in connection with a racket selling Samoan passports for up to 26,000 dollars each in Hong Kong.

For its part, the Marshall Islands government says it stopped the sale of passports in 1996.

But the arrest of the Taiwanese businessman shows it is somehow still going on: he had in his possession 30 Marshall Islands passports and several residency documents filled out for individuals with Chinese names.

In July, Chen was also detained by immigration officials in the U.S.-held Pacific island territory of Guam. They found in his possession 12 passports and 20 residency and naturalisation certificates.

The Marshall Islands has been involved in passport selling schemes since the mid-1980s, when the government first hired Taiwan-based promoters to advertise the scheme in Asia.

These agents published colour brochures extolling the benefits of owning a Marshall Islands passport, including, they said, unrestricted entry to the U.S.

This was not exactly true. Under the Compact of Free Association Treaty signed by the Marshall Islands and the U.S., Marshall Islands-born citizens are allowed such unrestricted entry until 2001. But naturalised citizens have to live in the islands for at least five years before that privilege is granted.

The U.S. State Department has repeatedly raised concerns about the passport sales to the Marshall Islands government, because many purchasers have tried to use their newly acquired passports to gain entry into the U.S.

Meantime, criticism about the passport trade have ranged from accusations that it is akin to selling national identity, to how it could generate resentment against Asians who have secured the passports.

Already, the influx of Chinese into the Marshall Islands last year is making locals fearful of losing jobs and businesses. They are wary that the newcomers could “take over” the retail trade as they have in other Pacific islands like Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

“The debate centres on the concern that aggressive Chinese armed with Marshall Islands passports that exempt them from immigration control, will simply put Marshallese out of business and into unemployment line,” said local newspaper editor Jiff Johnson.

Yet the passport sales have undoubtedly been an economic boon. Johnson points out that during the past two years, passport sales have raised 10 million dollars for the government, helping them to fund the government payroll and subsidise the operations of the airline Air Marshalls.

The retired head of the immigration department, Una Watak, has argued that the Chinese influx has brought in a much needed cash inflow at a crucial time for the economy.

Watak is among the government officials asked to testify in the case of Chen, who claimed he paid Watak some 100,000 dollars in July for the passports found in his possession.

Immigration department checks have failed to locate the number of the passports found with Chen, raising the possibility of a large-scale scam in forged passports.

Then again, some are asking if the passport trade is as profitable for the South Pacific given Asia’s cash crunch. The slowdown in East Asia’s overseas investments may yet, on its own, dampen the trade.

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