To promote his national pride and boost tourism, the former Georgian government greeted travelers with a small bottle of wine. The current administration briefly revived the practice this past Christmas. However, visitors may have reason to feel less welcome as Georgia passed a new immigration law in September 2014.
Georgia’s immigration policy was once a hallmark of the previous government’s libertarianism. At its peak, citizens from 118 countries were able to enter Georgia without a visa and stay for a year. Anyone who wanted to stay longer could simply leave the country one day and come back the next – allowing them to live legally in Georgia for years without even having official immigration status.
But the new law changes matters considerably. Visas are now waived for visitors from 94 countries instead of 118. and they are only allowed to stay 90 days out of 180.
The vibrant expat community in Georgia has complained of unclear rules and inconsistent enforcement, flooding social media and forum groups with reports of conflicting instructions, unprepared officials, and unresolved visa and residency denials from foreigners who have lived and worked in the country. A U.S. Iraqi couple who owned a Georgia-registered business saw the American’s application approved and the Iraqi one rejected. Indian investors in Georgia were turned down while a Georgian-American couple applied for citizenship because the process was less complicated than obtaining a residence permit. Numerous applications, including some for children, have been denied because of unspecified “national safety concerns”.
Government officials said changes to the previous “extremely liberal migration policy” are in line with the requirements of the visa liberalization action plan presented by the European Union in 2013. This agreement, which aims to ease the requirements for Georgians traveling to the EU, deals with document security. Border and migration management, public order and security, and human rights. Moldova, which like Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU last June, is already benefiting from visa liberalization with the EU.
Some migration experts consider it useful to align Georgian politics with international standards.
“The open door policy is untenable,” says Marc Hulst of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tbilisi, which helped the government revise migration policy. “The problem is not in the direction of a controlled mechanism as long as that mechanism is transparent and based on unambiguous and clear procedures.”
However, the business community has taken a different view, calling the new law a nightmare for foreigners and a barrier to investors.
“The visa restriction and its messy implementation is just the last of a series of business-unfriendly bills implemented by the government, from the labor code to banning land acquisitions for foreigners to increased pressure from the tax office,” he told Fady Asly , Chairman of the Georgia International Chamber of Commerce. “Georgia is starving for investment, but this ruling has poisoned the lives of foreigners and seriously damaged investor confidence.”
Investors like Asly believe in the free movement of capital, people, goods and services – the more open a country is to foreigners, the easier it is to compete in the global economy.
“Georgia is losing its competitive advantage,” he adds, “a luxury that cannot be afforded to be missed as a small country of 4.5 million people with no energy resources and a key strategic geographic location.”
He’s not a lonely pessimist. Eric Livny, Executive Director of the International School of Economics, argues that hasty attempts to cut and paste guidelines to tick boxes to “harmonize” Georgia’s legislative and regulatory environment with the EU are “undermining Georgia’s reputation as a great place” to do business “.
For its part, the EU believes that the new 90-day limit is closer to EU standards, but emphasizes the difference between policy and implementation.
“The new system meets the standards set out in the visa liberalization plan,” EU Ambassador to Georgia Janos Herman told beyondbrics. “However, it is a sovereign decision of the Georgian government to decide how these requirements are implemented.”
In an interview last October, Cecilia Malmström, then EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, said that the Commission “did not recommend restricting access to Georgia for citizens of a particular country”.
Despite controversial statements by some officials who were classified as “xenophobic” by rights groups, the government seems to have taken some of the criticism on board. A month after the law came into force, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili apologized to the foreign citizens concerned for the inconvenience. Parliament amended the law at the end of November by amending a procedure whereby foreigners already living in the country must apply to the Georgian diplomatic mission in their own country. In February, the government launched an e-Visa portal.
On March 12, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Minister of Economy and Deputy Prime Minister, said during a joint hearing of the parliamentary committee that “some false news” had been sent to the business community, admitting that the “system was not ready” and that there were “complications” give. when issuing residence permits. He added that the government would “soon” submit a bill to “liberalize” the visa regime to parliament, but did not provide details.
The change in policy certainly had some negative consequences. Tourism decreased by 42,000 arrivals in the last four months of 2014 compared to the previous year. Real estate agencies claim foreigners’ transactions have dropped 25 to 30 percent, and certain imports may also be more expensive. “Visas are a valuable commodity now, and truckers with a valid document to enter Georgia are using it to increase their fees,” says Asly. “For example, the cost of a truck from Iran has doubled from an average of $ 1,500 in August to $ 3,000 in October, which inevitably affects the final price for consumers.”
According to the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees (MRA), the change may also have contributed to the rise in the number of asylum seekers in Georgia from 714 at the end of 2013 to 1,792 at the end of 2014. The bulk of the applications – 1,570 – were filed from July 1, when people like Iraqis threatened by Isis could enter Georgia without a visa and stay 360 days. Now that this path is closed, applicants can legally be in the country after the asylum procedure while their case is being examined. This process can take up to two years.
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