Cyprus has denied fresh allegations that it was granting citizenship to foreigners accused of crimes in exchange for millions in investments, insisting that all those who received a passport met all criteria in place at the time.

The Cypriot parliament last month beefed up the eligibility criteria for the so-called "golden passport" investment program, which has brought billions in revenue since its introduction following a 2013 financial crisis.

The program has attracted many investors because a passport from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus automatically grants its holder citizenship to the entire 27-member European Union.

The method of effectively buying a passport is known as a citizen-by-investment program, or a CIP.

Cyprus' interior ministry said 12 foreigners named in an Al Jazeera report received citizenship under the investment program only after being approved by Cypriot and foreign agencies tasked with vetting such applications.

The report claimed that the 12 — including four Russians, two people each from Ukraine, China and Iran, and one each from Venezuela and Vietnam — secured Cypriot passports after paying at least two million euros ($3.29m) in investments despite being under investigation for an assortment of crimes such as corruption and fraud.

The Cypriot interior ministry said would look into the new information in the report.

Under the latest changes, new anti-money laundering rules will be used to bolster how prospective investors are vetted.

Another clause makes it easier for investors involved in or convicted of a serious crime to have their Cypriot citizenship revoked.

Investors will still need to sink two million euros ($3.29m) into the Cypriot economy, including buying a home, buying up stock in Cypriot companies or contributing to housing and entrepreneurship programs.

The number of such citizenships is capped at 700 a year.

The Cypriot government last year moved to revoke the citizenship of 26 foreign investors from countries including Russia, Cambodia, Malaysia and Iran following reports that they had possibly broken the rules.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades acknowledged at the time that "errors" may have been made in granting such "golden passports."

Some 4000 Cypriot passports have been issued to investors under the program, generating at least seven billion euros ($11.52b) since 2013.

Pathway to safety for the ultra-rich

Over the past five to 10 years, the primary motivations amongst CIP participants — who tend to have a net worth of anywhere from USD$2 million to over USD$50 million ($2.72m to $69.5m) — have been freedom of movement, tax benefits and lifestyle factors, such as better education or civil liberties.

But with COVID-19 dramatically transforming 2020, some elite families are also considering healthcare, pandemic responses and potential safe havens to ensure they have a backup plan for the future.

"People really want the insurance policy of an alternative citizenship, which gives them a Plan B," Dominic Volek, Head of Asia for global citizenship and residence advisory firm Henley & Partners, told CNN.

"They are also concerned about healthcare and pandemic preparedness because, of course, this may not be the only pandemic in our lifetime.

"Wealthy people don't plan for five to 10 years — they plan more than 100 years in advance, in terms of wealth and well being."

When it comes to specific citizenship programs, Montenegro and Cyprus have been the most popular, with new applications up 142 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively, in the first quarter of 2020, compared with the fourth quarter of 2019.

Residency programs in Australia and New Zealand are also in high demand, but for another reason: crisis management.

"New Zealand has come out on top in terms of how it handled the pandemic, compared with some of the other usually more favoured destinations like the UK or the US," Volek said.

"So we've definitely seen a big increase in inquiries in the Australia and New Zealand investment visas.

"That's probably also spurred by articles about these Silicon Valley guys, who had participated in various investor visas programs pre-pandemic and put doomsday plans in place."

Only ultra-high net worth families can participate in these residency programs: Australia's program costs US$1-3.5 million (up to $4.86m), while New Zealand will set investors back US$1.9-$6.5 million (up to $9m).

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Source: 9News