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Rich Could Bid for Visas in U.K. Proposal

The wealthy often buy their most prized possessions at auction: art, jewelry, wine and even mansions.

Now they might be able to bid on an even bigger prize: visas.

An immigration official in the U.K. is proposing a plan to auction visas to the overseas rich, with minimum bids starting at $4 million.

The program would be a first of its kind in the world. And the U.K.'s Migration Advisory Committee report said that any surplus from the bidding could go to good causes like assisting inner-city schools or health-care research.

Skeptics say such a plan would create "eBay immigration" for the rich, where a country simply sells access to the highest bidder — regardless of their longer-term value to the country.

But the policy only makes official what many countries are already doing. As the world's rich — especially from China and Russia — look to safeguard their families and fortunes, many are fleeing to other countries. And governments hoping to attract the overseas rich have created special fast-tracks for big investors.

In Australia, 91 percent of the 545 applicants for the country's "significant investor" visa program are from mainland China. The program requires a $5 million investment and clean criminal record.

But some governments are starting to ask tougher questions about the benefits. Canada this month decided to kill its controversial investor visa program after it was inundated with tens of thousands of wealthy Chinese applicants. People worth a minimum of $1.4 million could get a visa if they loaned the government $720,000 interest-free for five years.

The U.S. EB-5 program, known as the investor visa, is also coming under fire for providing far fewer jobs and economic benefits than promised. The program gives a visa to those investing $500,000 or more or creating or preserving at least 10 jobs.