Greece’s controversial ‘Golden Visas’ are being used to scam Chinese nationals
20 Nov 2020

Mrs Yang* had dreamt of visiting the Parthenon ever since she studied Greek mythology at school, so when a real estate agent in her home country of China approached her with an investment opportunity – a three-bedroom apartment overlooking the Acropolis and Syntagma Square, in the centre of Athens – she didn’t think twice.

Mrs Yang invested her life savings into the property, purchasing it for €290,000 (£258,100) in 2018. The flat also came with a massive perk: a so-called “golden visa”, a five-year permit granting her the right to live and work in Greece, plus the right for her and her family to move freely within the Schengen area.

Also known as “immigrant investor programmes”, golden visas are residency permits granted to foreign nationals who invest a large sum of money in a country, usually by buying property. In short, they’re a way for wealthy people to skip the standard requirements asked of immigrants to migrate legally. In some cases, golden visas can also fast-track citizenship.

Currently, 18 countries around the world offer these types of programmes, including eight EU Member States and the UK. In Greece, a golden visa is granted alongside investments above €250,000. The visa can be renewed every five years if the investment is retained. If the investor lives in Greece for seven years, they’re eligible for citizenship – and an EU passport.

One year after the purchase, Mrs Yang left China for Athens, only to discover she’d been scammed. Not only was her apartment overpriced (its true value was €74,000 [£66,300]) and located in an entirely different part of town, but it had also been sold to another Chinese investor after she’d bought it, at the lower price of €250,000 (£224,000). When she confronted her agent in Greece, they asked her to produce a list of documents she didn’t have, to prove the apartment belonged to her.

In October, Mrs Yang filed a joint lawsuit with Mrs Lee, another Chinese investor who’d been swindled through the purchase of a €300,000 home in Glyfada, a seaside suburb of Athens. A VICE World News investigation into the scams suggests Mrs Yang and Mrs Lee’s cases are just the tip of the iceberg – and that Athens might be facing a bigger real estate bubble.

In China, golden visas are big business. According to specialist news site Invested Migration Insider (IMI), immigration agencies dedicated to these investments have boomed since 2002, when the Chinese government loosened regulations. Greece introduced golden visas in 2014, and as of May 2020, the country had issued 7,550 of them – 5,504 to Chinese citizens.

In 2019, the IMI estimated there were over 27,000 Chinese agencies specialised in organising these deals, and that 57,000 Chinese citizens have invested more than €37 billion (£32.9 billion) in golden visas over the past decade. Supported by the Chinese government, these agencies attract investors and put them in contact with foreign agencies, which take care of the practical side of the agreement.

Mrs Yang was approached by one of these agencies and later asked to pay for her apartment via credit and debit card. According to her lawyer, Mrs Yang said she signed a preliminary agreement with the agent in Athens, but not a binding contract of sale. She paid a first instalment of €29,000 (£26,000) when she signed, and settled the rest within a month. Mrs Yang said she was asked to simply swipe her cards on a regular card machine.

*Name changed.

By Kostas Koukoumakas and Corina Petridi, Vice, 17 November 2020

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