MI5 warns ministers of Chinese spies who slip through the UK using visa-free access from third countries
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The Home Office has been forced to prepare new visa restrictions on a series of countries over fears that Chinese spies are infiltrating Britain by gaining citizenship through third countries and using their visa-free access to the UK.
According to The Times, MI5 has warned ministers about the espionage threat and has provided evidence that citizens from hostile states, including China, have entered the UK after acquiring citizenship in countries whose nationals are allowed to enter Britain without the need for a visa.
The intelligence agency also fears this includes agents working for the Chinese government. It has also raised concerns that Russian spies could emulate the practice. The National Crime Agency has also presented evidence that serious organised crime groups are using the so-called “cash-for-passport” schemes to smuggle people into the UK.
The report said countries that the authorities fear are being exploited by Chinese spies and organised crime groups include Vanuatu in South Pacific, Namibia in southern Africa, and Timor-Leste in southeast Asia.
These are among a growing number of countries that allow foreign nationals to acquire citizenship by investing or paying a relatively small amount of money in the country. Unlike China, they are also on the UK’s list of countries whose citizens do not need to obtain a visa to come to Britain for up to six months.
According to The Times, Vanuatu is seen as the ‘most concerning route’ for potentially hostile state spies and criminals. Foreign nationals can become citizens within a matter of months by paying a fee of about £120,000 without even needing to set foot in the country.
This is part of efforts to rebuild the nation after a disruptive cyclone in 2015. More than 4,000 passports have been granted to Chinese nationals under the scheme. A Vanuatu passport opens up visa-tourism travel to 123 countries, compared with only 70 with a Chinese passport.
However, government sources told The Times the Foreign Office has blocked the move because its efforts to lift UK visa restrictions on a list of countries including Indonesia, Thailand, and Zambia have themselves been vetoed by the Home Office.
The Foreign Office wants to allow visa-free travel for tourists from the countries as part of efforts to improve relations, but the Home Office is reluctant to relax visa rules. The Home Office believes its request should be prioritised because it involves national security concerns.
A government source told The Times: “The Home Office and Foreign Office are fighting this one out. It keeps happening. One won’t budge without concessions from the other and we can’t seem to resolve it.
“The Home Office thinks the other is soft, and the Foreign Office thinks they’re too cautious. There’s some truth in both those arguments.” However, a Foreign Office source downplayed suggestions of a row, insisting that the department had simply asked for the visa restrictions to be delayed.