Programs run by some European Union countries to sell visas and citizenship to wealthy foreigners are vulnerable to abuse and corruption, watchdogs say.
At least 10 European countries in the Schengen free-movement area have applied programs to trade citizenship or residency rights for investment. They are Austria, Belgium, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, and Switzerland.
Hungary suspended its scheme last year. Similar programs are also run in other EU countries outside the Schengen zone, including Britain, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, and non-EU members Armenia, Montenegro, and Moldova have also proposed similar schemes.
"There is growing concern about the risks these schemes pose to the integrity of the Schengen area," Transparency International EU director Carl Dolan told a news conference in Brussels on March 5.
Visas obtained in a Schengen country can be used to travel and reside in other states of the bloc.
New investigations by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a media consortium, documented cases of faulty scrutiny of individuals who were granted EU passports or residence permits.
Transparency said new EU citizens under such schemes include Russian nationals in Malta who are believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"It is clear that due-diligence procedures in some EU countries, such as Hungary and Portugal, have not been rigorous enough," said Casey Kelso, advocacy director at Transparency International.
The European Commission is due to release a report this year on so-called golden-visa programs run by EU states. A spokesman said on March 5 the report would give "guidance" to EU countries on how to implement such schemes.