Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia Ends Immigration Free-for-All

Some analysts fear stricter visa rules will deter foreigners who contribute to Georgian economic growth.
By Heather Yundt

When Sarah, an American national, and her Iraqi husband applied for temporary residence in Georgia before a new immigration law came into force, they did not anticipate any difficulties. 

After all, the couple owned a locally-registered company and the money they had in a Georgian bank account far exceeded the required minimum.

But when they heard the results, they were shocked at how different they were. Like many Americans, Sarah had been granted five-year residence. Her husband’s application, on the other hand, had been rejected.

After a decade of some of the most liberal migration policies in the world, Georgia’s new law on the Legal Status of Aliens and Stateless Persons came into effect this month, shortening the length of time that visitors are allowed to stay in Georgia without a visa from 360 to 90 days and reintroducing visa requirements for citizens of 13 countries, including Iraq.

The change has sparked a debate among experts as well as foreign residents about what the new regulations mean for the Georgian economy.

Sarah says she and her husband decided to move to Georgia with their young son last year precisely because of its open-door immigration policy. While they had planned to settle in the country and open a non-profit and other businesses, they are now considering going elsewhere.

“I think that my ideas have changed quite a bit about Georgia. It makes me irritated. It makes me want to close up everything I’ve started here and just leave,” she said. “We’re fed up. We don’t take anything from the Georgian economy. All of my clients are from outside of the country. We bring money here.”

After Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, the new government led by President Mikheil Saakashvili adopted an open-door immigration policy intended to make it easy for foreigners to work and invest in the country.

With no work permits and 360-day visa-free stays for citizens of most countries, the policy was so open that a 2008 report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found that illegal immigration was nearly a “non-issue”.

But the IOM report also sounded some alarm bells, warning of “weaknesses which, unless quickly addressed, are expected to fuel the flow of irregular migrants, transnational crime and other abuses directly and indirectly linked to migration – potentially jeopardising the country’s security and interests”.

It was not long before the European Union began to push Georgia to reform its migration policy, particularly through the European Neighbourhood Policy and Visa Liberalisation action plans.

Eager to strengthen its ties with the EU, Georgia eventually began to listen.

Georgian foreign minister Maia Panjikidze said at briefing on August 26 that the new regulations were “fully in line” with the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan, a set of detailed requirements a country must meet in order to be granted by the EU short-term visa-free regime.

A national strategy document adopted last year represented a milestone, according to Shushanik Makaryan, a sociologist and expert in the migration policies of post-Soviet states at Pennsylvania State University’s Population Research Institute.

“It is my impression that Georgia has little local ownership in migration policy. If you look at their migration policy strategy that they adopted last year, it’s largely based on the language of the EU,” Makaryan said.

Marc Hulst, a programme officer with the IOM in Tbilisi, believes that following EU advice and aligning migration policy with international standards simply makes sense.

“It’s how countries do it. If Georgia wants to be an exception, OK, they have the right to do so, but there are no grounds,” he said.

The IOM has been assisting Georgia with the development of migration policy by providing comments on drafts and sharing the experiences and approaches of other countries.

Hulst has a word for the old open-door policy – untenable. He says that in recent years, smugglers have targeted Georgia as a transit route to EU states.

There has also been an influx of asylum-seekers, principally from Iraq, who were able to come without visas until the recent rule changes. As Georgia is obliged to provide assistance to refugees, Hulst says the increase in asylum claims could put a strain on its country’s resources.

Makaryan argues that tighter visa regulations will not deter investment.

“I don’t think businesses come to Georgia because there is no visa requirement for their staff,” he said. “They come for Georgia’s political and economic opportunities, for the ease of doing business, for the country’s anti-corruption campaign, etc. These are the things that attract businesses. Not the entry visa, or [the requirement] that your employees should file for a residence permit.”

Florian Biermann, an assistant professor at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University, disagrees.

“Whenever something works without regulation, you usually worsen the situation by implementing regulations,” he said. “Why Georgia made this huge growth, this huge progress, is exactly because it was so libertarian. And immigration is one part of that.”

Bierman argues that a liberal migration policy gave Georgia a competitive advantage over other countries. With work contracts now a requirement for long-term visitors, he says Georgia will lose out on people who do not have regular employment but still contribute to the country.

"Every foreigner who is not a criminal and who is living here is an economic asset for the country, for the very simple reason that you don’t have any social welfare provision to that person,” he said. “Many people who came here… had specific plans of what to do. And these people very often brought money. They came with ideas; they wanted to do something."

With the loss of creative people, Biermann argues, the country’s international reputation will suffer.

"Georgia was on the way to really becoming cool, exactly because of the artists and culturally interesting people who are living here. And now they won’t be living here any more.”

Nonetheless, migration experts see the new regulations as a clear statement of intentions.

“[Georgia] has harmonised its framework with international standards, or is trying to,” Makaryan said. “[This shows] the international community that I am one of you, I have the same standards of migration regulation.”

Georgia must now pass a series of bylaws covering the practical details of the migration law, as well as work on the difficult process of implementation.

Although it is too soon to know the full impact the changes will have, Makaryan says better regulation will give the authorities a clearer picture of who is in the country and what they are doing — information that is currently lacking. Previously, the labour market was “largely left undocumented”, she said.

Sarah’s husband is now applying for asylum in a bid to remain in Georgia. The process will take at least six months.

“We’re going to fight them as much as we can,” Sarah added.

Heather Yundt is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Georgia