Georgia pursues a liberal immigration policy. Consequently, citizens of up to 80 foreign countries can enter Georgia for a short stay without travel visas. Likewise, they can obtain a residence permit in Georgia without much red tape. Furthermore, foreigners legally staying in Georgia can seek employment without any additional permits, except in those spheres in which the law requires Georgian citizenship.
Just recently it has become known that the government of Georgia intends to revise this policy. So far, this change only affects citizens of Iran, who will now have to get visas to travel to Georgia.
Statistics prove that the ease of entering, living and doing business in Georgia has, inter alia, contributed to the economic growth of the country.
For example, according to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, in 2005 up to 450 million USD worth of foreign investments were made in Georgia. In 2007, the similar indicator reached a record high of over two billion USD. In the following years, after the Russian aggression and the global financial crisis, foreign direct investments in Georgia decreased, though this pattern soon reversed and the upwards trend kept going year after year: 2009 saw investments worth 458.4 million USD, which increased to 814.5 million USD in 2010 and to more than one billion USD in 2011. Regardless of the tense period before the 2012 October parliamentary elections, the first and second quarters of that year were promising, though showed some decrease in the third and fourth quarters; nevertheless the annual indicator of investments was 865.2 million USD in 2012.
According to the official data of the National Bank of Georgia, the amount of monetary means deposited by foreign physical and legal entities to Georgian banks also dramatically increased compared to 2003.
Over the past few years, the number of tourists arriving in Georgia has been on the rise. According to 2012 data, Georgia had one of the most burgeoning tourism sectors in the world. Whilst 2011 saw the arrival of 2.8 million foreign tourists, in 2012 this figure went up to 4.3 million, according to the data of the Georgian National Tourism Administration. The toughening of the visa regime will adversely affect the number of tourists; obtaining a visa requires additional financial resources and time, increasing travel costs.
Moreover, hundreds of students from India, Pakistan and other Asian countries arrive in Georgia annually. The money they have spent on education in Georgia has been used for the improvement of this sector. These students' choice of Georgia as somewhere to gain their education was conditioned, amongst other factors, by a relatively simplified visa and immigration regime.
It is a fact that the relatively liberal immigration policy of Georgia has had a positive impact on the country's economy. The stable growth of the Georgian economy during the past few years was promising. The only exception was 2009, during which time economic growth was negative due to the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 and the global financial crisis. However, it must be noted that Georgia's economy overcame the crisis much faster than did many other economies, for example, those of the Baltic States. By 2011, the Georgian economy had already showed 7% growth, whilst in 2012, it grew by 6.2%. The 2012 decline on the 2011 indicator was a result of the slowdown in the last quarter of 2012. Anyway, over the period between 2003 and 2011, the Georgian economy grew annually by an average 5.7%. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for 2013. In May, economic indicators showed a zero percent rate growth. According to the forecast of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, economic growth in 2013 will be 3%, instead of the 6% initially targeted. Members of the government's economic team do not sound optimistic either.
Bearing in mind that the liberal immigration policy had a positive impact on economic growth, the intention of the Georgian government to change it seems strange.
Attempts to regulate migration or, to be more precise, to impose a reasonable level of control on the inflow of immigrants into a country is a serious challenge that faces politicians in many countries. The need to impose restrictions arises when the economy and social structure of a country finds it difficult to absorb immigrants.
In no way does Georgia face a problem of excess inflows of immigrants. Furthermore, every international and national survey on this issue has shown that the net migration rate of Georgia is negative, which means that more people leave the country than enter. For example, according to the 2008 report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), "Migration in Georgia: A Country Profile 2008," Georgia's net migration rate stood at -10.8. The data of the National Statistics Office of Georgia also shows a negative net migration rate. With the exception of a few years, the net migration rate has been negative, for example, it stood at -21.5 in 2012.
It is a fact that there is no cause for alarm – we do not face the threat of being inundated by immigrants; nor is there a need to introduce restrictions.
It should be said, however, that apart from economic and social factors, the toughening of immigration policies may also be demanded by partner countries if the liberal policy of a neighboring country poses a threat to them. We often hear from the government that a strict, or a relatively stricter migration policy, is a prerequisite for greater alignment with the European Union.
Migration issues do represent one of the key topics in the relationship between Georgia and the EU. However, our European partners understand perfectly well that a country with a population of 4.5 million, which does not even have a shared border with the EU, cannot be a serious source of illegal migration. The above cited IOM report shows that Georgia is not the best or most convenient route for illegal migration to Europe. Consequently, we often hear more myths about this issue than information reflecting the reality.
The above said does not mean that the country must reject dialogue on migration issues with the EU; nor that it must not take into account the concerns of its partners. Georgia signed a readmission agreement with the EU, which came into force in March 2011. This agreement obliges the country to take back its citizens who illegally stay in the EU, as well as any citizens of a third country who illegally entered the EU via Georgia in any other form than transit.
Georgia impeccably performs its international obligations assumed under the readmission agreement with the EU. Moreover, for years Georgia has been actively cooperating with the EU on the issues of integrated border management and the country has made significant achievements in this area.
Since 2009, Georgia and the EU have been involved in a mobility partnership program aimed at jointly managing migration flows, taking into account the interests of both the partners and the migrants, and supporting legal migration.
In February 2013, within the framework of the dialogue on visa-free travel between Georgia and the EU, which began in June 2012, the EU presented Georgia with a visa liberalization action plan. This action plan includes several directions: the fight against corruption and organized crime; the protection of personal data; the elimination of discrimination and the protection of minority rights; and the reformation of the justice system.
Over the past decade, an important aspect of the management of migration has been the fight against organized crime, especially against types of trans-border crime, such as money laundering and human trafficking. Consequently, states increasingly consider the fight against trans-border crime in the process of establishing their rules for border management.
It must be said that Georgia is performing well in this regard too. According to the conclusions of MONEYVAL, the anti-money laundering committee of the Council of Europe, Georgia falls under the category of successful countries. The country's international rating was much worse before the liberal migration policy was introduced – between, for example, 2001 and 2005, according to MONEYVAL's reports on Georgia for those years (only shortened versions of these reports are publicly available). It was not until the evaluation round of 2007 that Georgia succeeded from moving from the strict monitoring process to regular cooperation. This proves once again that the effective fight against crime is absolutely feasible under a liberal migration policy.
Georgia has also fully observed the sanctions adopted against several countries by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee. For example, having a visa free regime with Iran did not prevent Georgia from fulfilling such international obligations.
As regards the problem of human trafficking, since 2007 Georgia has been among the most successful countries in the world in the fight against trafficking. According to an annual report of the US State Department, "Trafficking in Persons," Georgia was placed in tier 1, among the most successful countries, over the period 2007 to 2012. In a similar report for 2013, Georgia was downgraded to tier 2.
It is thus also true that the liberal migration policy did not interfere with the country's effective fight against human trafficking either.
Georgia managed to pursue a liberal migration policy that contributed to the development of a whole range of sectors of the economy and the growth of the Gross Domestic Product. At the same time, the liberal policy did not impede the process of convergence with the EU. Georgia was awarded a simplified visa regime in March 2011, whilst in June 2012, the dialogue began on the achievement of a visa-free regime. For its efforts in fighting trafficking in persons, the country received positive assessments from the Council of Europe's MONEYVAL and was ranked among the most successful countries in the corresponding annual reports of the US State Department.
Given the economic benefits that the existing immigration policy brought to the country, it is not clear what prompted the government to change this policy; why the liberal visa regime must be revised; or why it cannot strike the right balance between the interests of the Georgian state and those of partner countries.
Closing the door that allows us to breathe fresh air is dangerous.