Migration is as old as human history, but attempts to control it are a recent phenomenon. When Jason and the Argonauts entered the ancient Georgian kingdom of Colchis unannounced, they held no passports. If they tried that today, they would be turned back. But if they had valid Greek travel documents, they would be able to stay for 360 days without a visa - plenty of time to catch a Golden Fleece.
That arrangement, which extended to citizens of 118 countries at the policy’s peak, has made Georgia one of the most open places in the world. But that is due to change after a new law on aliens, which was adopted by parliament on March 5, comes into effect on September 1.
Visa-free stays will be reduced to 90 days. Those who need a visa will find it harder to apply at the border, and should apply to Georgian embassies before travel instead. The use of different types of visa - for tourists, business travelers and others - will be reinforced, and foreigners who currently work in Georgia without a visa will have to apply for work permits.
How many countries will benefit from the visa-free regime is beyond the scope of the law. But a reduction in the near future is highly likely.
Supporters of the old policy point to economic theory, which insists on the free movement of capital, people, goods and services. The more open a country is to foreigners, the thinking goes, the easier it is to compete in the global economy.
Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that Georgia may have benefitted in this way. But calculating those benefits with any precision is very difficult. While the number of visitors to Georgia has increased greatly in recent years, reaching just under 5.4 million in 2013, nobody really knows what those visitors were doing. Some came on business, others for pleasure. Others still may never have left at all.
Controlling immigration is hard at the best of times. But the current system makes it even harder to keep tabs on foreigners, government officials say. The new law, they add, aims to regulate migration more than restrict it. That will yield more information about why people come to Georgia, contributing in turn to better policy development.
Crime and punishment?
The new law will also crack down on those who break the rules. Specific provisions govern the detention of irregular migrants – the Ministry of Interior is currently building a detention centre – and their expulsion. Other clauses will reinforce obligations on carrier companies such as airlines and bus companies to check that their passengers meet Georgian immigration rules, and return those who do not.
Some commentators complain of a broader effort by EU member states to export their own hard-line immigration policies to countries on Europe’s periphery. In her book Borderline Justice, for example, the British lawyer Frances Webber names Georgia as one of the “buffer states” on the edge of Europe which the EU forces to police migrants’ movements.
Gavin Slade, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, goes further, arguing that Georgia is adopting a “punitive model of migration management”. New police powers to identify and inspect foreigners are a particular cause for concern, he says. Experience elsewhere shows that “stop and search” powers easily descend into racial profiling.
Tbilisi signed a Readmission Agreement with the EU in 2010, which obliges it to take back Georgian nationals. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians have migrated to the EU since the early 1990s, and a sizeable proportion of them lack the right documentation. Yet only 751 people have been readmitted to Georgia since the agreement came into force in early 2011, according to the Ministry of Interior.
The Readmission Agreement also obliges the government to take back third-country nationals who entered the EU directly from Georgia. Officials appear relaxed at this: since the two countries do not share a land border, the numbers involved are much smaller than in Turkey or Ukraine. So far, Georgia has not received a single request to readmit a third-country national.
The EU’s main source of leverage over Georgia’s migration policy is the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan (VLAP), which requires progress in certain directions in return for easier access to EU countries. Importantly, the VLAP does not demand a less liberal visa policy; rather, its focus is more technical. Key provisions include more secure documentation, including biometric passports; “integrated border management”; and prevention of organized crime.
Government officials argue that these measures are in Georgia’s interests, not just those of the EU. Strong borders are a boon to national security, and help to combat trafficking and customs fraud as well as illegal migration. The government is also keen to encourage its citizens to return from abroad. While voluntary return is preferable, the authorities have been quick to implement the Readmission Agreement when necessary.
Domestic dissatisfaction with the current visa policy is another factor behind the law. For instance, resentment at the arrival of Indian farmers buying up Georgian land, best expressed in the slogan “Georgia for Georgians”, inspired a temporary ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners that is due to expire at the end of 2014. Recent influxes of Iraqis and Syrians fleeing instability in their own countries, although tiny compared to countries in the Middle East, have provoked some grumbling on Tbilisi’s streets.
That chimes with broader attitudes in Georgian society. For example, Turkey is Georgia’s biggest trading partner, responsible for 17% of the country’s imports and 10% of its exports. Yet 28% of Georgians disapprove of trading with Turks, while 74% disapprove of Georgian women marrying Turkish men, according to polling by the Caucasus Research Resource Centre (CRRC) in 2011.
Immigration is a polarizing issue in much of the world. Many of its costs are more obvious than its benefits, making it vulnerable to populist exploitation. By its own admission, the previous, UNM-led government introduced reforms at break-neck speed, but lost touch with ordinary Georgians in the process. Immigration policy is a case in point.
As required by the VLAP, Georgia has also developed its own migration strategy. But working out how to manage migration in the national interest is tricky. The migration strategy is probably the beginning of the conversation, rather than the end of it. If EU countries are any guide, immigration will remain on the agenda for a long time to come.
About the author:
Guy Edmunds works for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Tbilisi. Any views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of DRC.