It is a group of Georgians that rarely features in the country’s public life. But a stark reminder of their existence came in September and October 2013, when former President Mikheil Saakashvili granted Georgian citizenship to over 2,500 people of Georgian origin living in Turkey.
Their enthusiasm took some people by surprise. “I would never have thought that so many people would say ‘yes, I have Georgian roots’ and want to receive citizenship”, Fahrettin Çiloğlu, a bilingual Georgian-Turkish writer known in Georgia as Parna-Beka Chilashvili, recently told researchers from the International Centre for Migration Policy Development. “It’s like an avalanche: one person wants it, then another, and so on.”
According to the Office of the State Minister for Diaspora Issues, Georgia’s “historic” diaspora comprises about 2 million people, most of whose families left Georgia in pre-Soviet times for Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. The UN Population Fund estimates that just under 750,000 more Georgians have emigrated since the early 1990s, mostly in search of work. Georgians can also now be found across Russia, Europe and North America. “We are a very scattered nation,” adds Mr Çiloğlu, “however much we claim the opposite.”
Georgia is hardly unique. Across the world an estimated 240 million people live in another country to the one in which they were born, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 75 million people have left their country in the last 10 years. More are likely to do so in the future, as ageing populations across much of the rich world will increase the need for migrant workers. The consultancy company McKinsey estimates that Europe alone will need 30 million more workers by 2050.
Many poorer countries complain of a “brain drain”, as the best and brightest of their citizens leave for opportunities abroad. But migration has benefits too, not least in economic terms. According to the World Bank, USD 540 billion was sent as remittances through the formal banking system in 2012, with hundreds of millions more sent informally. That dwarfs official aid flows.
It is a similar tale in Georgia, where remittances through official channels reached USD 1.33 billion in 2012, roughly 8.4% of Georgia’s gross domestic product (GDP). Foreign direct investment in the same year only reached $912 million. Add in estimates of unofficial money transfers, such as relatives travelling with cash, and the difference is greater still, says Natia Chelidze, a labour economist at Tbilisi State University.
But can Georgia benefit even more from its diaspora? That was one of the questions posed by a large-scale conference held in Tbilisi on 13th November, which was jointly organised by the Office of the State Minister for Diaspora Issues and IOM.
The opportunity certainly exists. Changes in transport and technology make it easier than ever for diaspora members to engage with their homeland. Years ago, migrants would leave their homelands knowing they were highly unlikely to return. Now they can fly back in a day. The internet means that staying in touch has never been more straightforward.
“Absence no longer means exile,” says Kingsley Aikins, who runs Diaspora Matters, a Dublin-based consultancy company that advises governments worldwide on how to engage their diasporas. “People can be totally committed to where they are living and at the same time have a close relationship to their place of origin or ancestry”.
Indeed, recent research commissioned by GIZ, the German international development body, and the Office of the State Minister shows that the Georgian diaspora has much to offer. On one level, they have knowledge, skills and ideas that may be in short supply in Georgia. On another, they can invest their own money, or encourage investment from non-Georgian sources. For example, Georgians based abroad are behind the Tbilisi aquapark, which is due to open in January 2014.
But the experience of countries such as Israel and Ireland suggests that the government has a lot of work to do to turn this potential into reality.
“Diasporas often love their homeland”, Mr Aikins continues. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean they love the state.” The distinction is vital. Georgians may feel part of the Georgian nation wherever they are in the world. But they may not necessarily enjoy a strong relationship with the authorities in Tbilisi. “The key to building up that relationship is trust,” he adds. “Unfortunately, trust is hard to earn, but very easy to lose.”
One Size doesn’t Fit All
The diverse nature of diasporas complicates matters further. For example, Germany attracts Georgian students, while Greece offers the possibility of domestic work. Some emigrants want to return to Georgia permanently; others are firmly rooted abroad. Distance highlights the need for intensive communication. Diasporas can also be “divided and disputatious”, Mr Aikins adds, which underlines the need to tread carefully.
His advice to governments looking to build stronger ties with their diasporas echoes former US President (and Irish diaspora member) John F. Kennedy: “Think not of what your diaspora can do for you. Think of what you can do for your diaspora”. The failure to take that into account, he says, is one reason why so many diaspora initiatives fail.
Konstantine Surguladze, the State Minister for Diaspora Issues, says these are lessons he is keen to learn. His office is working on a draft strategy that adopts a “services first” approach to diaspora members, no matter whether they wish to return or prefer to stay abroad. Some ideas may be implemented through the internet, such as an online global diaspora network, or courses in Georgian language and culture. Others include organizing cultural and sporting events abroad.
“A lot of diaspora ties have fallen away,” he continues. But the fact that Georgian supras abroad often begin with a toast to the homeland demonstrates the diaspora’s lingering affection for Georgia. It is up to the government to take the next step. As Katie Melua, one of Georgia’s most famous diaspora members, sings on her latest album: “Chase Me”.
About the author:
Guy Edmunds works for the Danish Refugee Council in Tbilisi. DRC is currently implementing a project called “Enhancing the Role of Georgian Emigrants at Home” in partnership with the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, which is funded by the European Union.