When a passport becomes a badge of shame
The thought of an Iranian fugitive from justice moving seamlessly almost anywhere in the world on a Barbadian passport which he bought for tens of thousands of dollars, would likely send shivers through the spines of virtually every Barbadian.
Or that of a former Nigerian minister who had been indicted by her own house of representatives for siphoning tens of billions of dollars in fuel subsidies from the state, and under investigation by British police on bribery and money laundering charges, carrying a Barbados diplomatic passport, having been secretly appointed an ambassador.
Or that of an unknown number of nationals of lands far away – Iran, Iraq, Russia, virtually everywhere – who have never laid eyes on Barbados, and can hardly point it out on a map, purchasing Barbadian citizenship and we are none the wiser.
Just the thought of it would make every right thinking Barbadian shudder, for we are proud of our country, proud of our symbols, proud of the things we hold dear.
However, as an increasing number of Caribbean countries engage in the practice of selling citizenship, the dangers of criminals and fugitives from justice getting their hands on our passports increase.
Recently, Iranian fugitive Ali Reza Ziba Halat Monfared, 43, the holder of a Dominican diplomatic passport, was arrested in the Dominican Republic and deported to Iran via Cuba and Russia, to face charges of helping to embezzle billions of oil dollars.
Iranian authorities say he had worked alongside tycoon Babak Zanjani, who was arrested in 2013, and was sentenced to death last year for pocketing $2.8 billion while helping the country bypass sanctions.
The government of Dominica later said it had cancelled Monfared’s diplomatic passport in January 2016 after information surfaced “that he may be a person of interest to authorities”.
However, Monfared remains a Dominican citizen, having bought his citizenship via the Citizenship by Investment programme, which the American television network, CBS dubbed “mail order citizenship” because those who purchase Dominica passports never have to place foot, or eyes, on the island.
These buyers of citizenship are not interested in the Caribbean; they simply want access to the countries to which their own nation’s passports will not get them.
The governments involved say they have no choice but to peddle citizenship to keep their economies afloat. They seem to suggest that unless they engage in this highly controversial business their countries will atrophy and ultimately die.
We in Barbados know a thing or two about tough economic times; and as difficult as it is, we congratulate the Freundel Stuart administration for not falling to the temptation to sell our citizenship for pieces of silver. And, no matter how difficult the economy gets, we hope Government never takes this route.
Last year, when Stuart tried to introduce the fingerprinting of travelling Barbadians, one of the reasons he put forward was the importance of protecting the credibility of our passport. We must continue to protect this sacred document by refusing to put it in the hands of just about anyone who can easily afford a few hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even now, there are serious implications for us. The Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas gives holders of passports from Caribbean Community [CARICOM] states certain privileges, including freedom of movement. It does not discriminate. Whether the holder is born here, obtained citizenship by marriage, or by spending many years here, working hard and contributing to the economy, or is an Iranian national hiding from the law who obtained it via mail order, they all have the same rights.
As Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines said, it is a troubling thought as “the grant of citizenship without any significant residence requirements or proper due diligence could facilitate criminality, money laundering or, at worst, terrorism and result in damage” to our international reputation.
For this reason, Barbados must join with Gonsalves to help curb this practice.
Currently, there is no shortage of buyers, so those involved in the citizenship selling business see a boom. But how far are they willing to go? Where will they stop? How many must they sell? Can an economy that is entirely dependent on the peddling of its citizenship be truly sustainable? And, what if these economic citizens satisfy the very basic residency requirements, can they impose their government on us by voting in their numbers?
These are troubling questions that require serious discussion among the CARICOM leaders – although we will not hold our collective breath.
There are a few things that we must hold sacred and on which we cannot put a price. Our citizenship must be at the top of the list. It must not be treated like produce to be haggled over at Cheapside Market on a Saturday morning, or like a gadget to be ordered via Amazon.
Our passport ought not be allowed to become a badge of shame.