Georgia Looks West, But Faces Migration Challenges at Home
Georgia, a republic of the Soviet Union until the USSR's dissolution in 1991, is an ethnically diverse country in the southern Caucasus. After more than a decade of conflict, territorial separation, corruption, and power plays, the Rose Revolution of November 2003 removed from power one of the former Soviet Union's most internationally known leaders, Eduard Shevardnadze.
The charismatic Mikhail Saakashvili, a Strasbourg and Columbia University-educated lawyer, was elected president with 97 percent of the votes in January 2004. His popularity outside Georgia is largely based on his having led the first of the revolution-dominos in the former Soviet Republics, which extended into Ukraine in November 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in March 2005.
Saakashvili intends to turn Georgia westward, and many Georgians join him in hoping the country will eventually join the European Union. In the years to come, the many facets of migration will play a key role in determining the achievement of this ambition.
After its heyday in the 11th and 12th centuries, Georgia suffered centuries of invasion and occupation by foreign powers, including Mongols, Persians, and Turks. From 1801 to May 1918, Georgia fell under imperial Russian rule. Following three years of independence, the Bolshevik armies invaded Georgia in February 1921, making it part of the Soviet Union.
Under Soviet rule, forced population movements were frequent, and included the deportation of the Meskhetian population, Kurds, and Khemshils from the Georgian region now known as Samtshke-Javakheti to Central Asia (primarily Uzbekistan).
Ethnic Georgians tended to remain in Georgia during the period of Soviet rule, their migration being primarily within the republic, towards the capital Tbilisi. There was some migration of Russians to Georgia; by 1989 they made up some six percent of the republic's population of 5.4 million (see Table 1). Many of these ethnic Russians and their descendents have migrated to Russia since Georgia's independence.
Following the break-up of the former Soviet Union, three regions of Georgia made efforts to break away. The autonomous region Adjara's allegiance with Russia was primarily economic and linked to a military base and tourist resorts. Its ruler from 1991 to 2004, appointed in the earliest days of independence, was ousted peacefully by Saakashvili during the latter chapters of the Rose Revolution in May 2004.
The regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, also autonomous during Soviet rule, violently clashed with Georgia between 1991 and 1993. Conflicts have simmered in both regions since then, and both form major problems for the Saakashvili government, including its relations with Russia, which the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians view as a protector.
The two conflicts are very complicated, and have a history going back long before 1991. In Abkhazia's case, the ethnic Abkhaz population resented Georgian rule and sought independence (which has never been recognized). Abkhazians made up a total of 1.8 percent of the population of all Georgia in 1989, and, with almost all members of the ethnic group living in Abkhazia, made up only 17.8 percent of the population of that region.
In South Ossetia's case, the region sought a greater degree of autonomy within Georgia in 1990. Then Georgian President Gamsakhurdia not only denied South Ossetia greater autonomy, he also revoked the region's autonomous status within Georgia. Ossetians had made up three percent of the 1989 population: it is estimated that 120,000 Ossetians fled from South Ossetia to the Russian republic of North Ossetia in the midst of the fighting in South Ossetia in 1991, leaving just 45,000 in the region itself. Much of the Georgian population also fled into other parts of Georgia.
One of President Saakashvili's main priorities is the resolution of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While territorial integrity is a primary motive, the need to find a solution for the internally displaced Georgians is also an incentive. This is one of the five major migration challenges that confront Georgia as the country looks westward, towards the EU.
In order of their priority to the country and its international supporters, these challenges are:
- internal displacements from Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as internal labor migration;
- return and integration of the deported Meskhetian population — the last of Stalin's forced population movements still prevented from returning to their ancestral home;
- emigration from Georgia primarily to the EU;
- transit migration through Georgia and the associated border control issues;
- and the development of a Georgian immigration and asylum policy.
However, the key to resolving the migration issues which would stand in the way of ultimate EU membership lies primarily in the last two issues.
How Georgia and the EU manage to cooperate as the Caucasus develop into part of the new migration "buffer zone" will be vital in setting the tone to their overall relationship.
Internal Displacement and Migration
The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s resulted in the displacement within Georgia of about a quarter of a million people. Precise figures are unknown, but it is thought there are about 230,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and 12,200 from South Ossetia.
In December 2004, UNHCR and the Georgian Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation began to re-register IDPs in part to clear up the confusion over their numbers. Progress has been slow because people find it difficult to reach the officials who will register them, and have no obvious incentive for doing so.
Some IDPs wonder whether re-registration will make them eligible for various forms of compensation, or whether being re-registered might guarantee their right to property restitution once they are able to return. It is even thought that IDPs who have left Georgia might return in order to re-register and ensure they too receive compensation. However, none of these rumored incentives have been stated as official reasons for conducting the registration program.
In the immediate aftermath of the displacements in the early 1990s, the Georgian authorities provided IDPs with shelter in whatever buildings were available in those towns and cities they reached during their flight towards Tbilisi: hotels, unused schools, army barracks, and hospitals. Those who were severely wounded were put into working hospitals, along with their families. As of 2005, many are still in those hospitals.
Approximately 42 percent of IDPs still live in shelters. The living conditions of the majority of those IDPs who remain in collective shelters range from barely reasonable to quite appalling depending on the original purpose of the shelter and its location in the country. The better conditions are generally found in Tbilisi.
The idea that there might be compensation for IDPs linked to their registration was inspired by events in Tbilisi in late 2004. Those IDPs who were among the first to flee the fighting in Abkhazia had been given the best shelters — the Iveria and Adjara hotels in Tbilisi, which were luxurious by Soviet standards. In 2004, they got lucky again.
As part of the post-Rose Revolution government's privatization program, these two properties were sold to private investors in 2004 for refurbishment as commercial tourist hotels. The privatization seems to have been an economic policy decision, with little if any involvement from the ministry that deals with refugee and IDP accommodation.
The IDP inhabitants were compensated US$7,000 per room — a significant amount in a country with a GDP per capita of just US$1,131 per year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For IDPs accustomed to receiving a state allowance of US$6 a month per person, US$7,000 was like winning a lottery; it was also enough money to buy a small apartment in Tbilisi's suburbs.
This compensation deal has led to many complaints and new problems for the government. In particular, other IDPs in Tbilisi expect to be compensated monetarily in the future. They believe their shelters also will be privatized, which in most cases is highly unlikely.
But some IDPs also believe the European Union will not allow Georgia to become a member with so many internally displaced persons, and thus will provide financial aid to "buy off" their status. This is nothing but a rumor, although the EU would likely want to see resolution of territorial disputes if membership becomes a possibility for Georgia.
Many of the IDPs in the collective shelters say that they have no work and cannot find work for various reasons, including injuries incurred in the fighting in the early 1990s or the need to care for relatives with such injuries. However, many do appear to receive income from the informal economy. The 58 percent who have left the shelters most often do work, whether in the formal or informal economy, and frequently own their house or apartment.
In addition, people who work with the IDPs suggest that at least one member of every IDP family emigrates, at least temporarily, and remits money to support those who stay behind. Many IDPs, therefore, while complaining of poverty and certainly living in very bad conditions, appear to have a range of relatively expensive possessions like mobile phones and leather jackets. Others use the remittances to pay for vital medical expenses.
International donors began a "New Approach to IDP Assistance," together with the Georgian government, in 1999. Part of the "New Approach" is aimed at increasing self-sufficiency among the IDP community. Other recent efforts by the donor community include rehabilitation of the IDP collective shelters across the country.
Although the long-term goal is to return the IDPs to their homes, in the short-term that prospect is unlikely. The broader population of Georgia has generally supported these IDPs over the years, but the IDPs have not been integrated because return has always been their and the government's goal.
The new government also suggests the IDPs can "temporarily integrate" before their eventual return, although it is not clear how that can happen, or what exactly it means. As the conflicts continue to simmer, the IDPs and others across Georgia are unable to feel completely secure about the future.
Tbilisi houses the second-largest concentration of IDPs in the country with 29.6 percent of IDPs (the largest group (46.4 percent) being in the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region). It is also a magnet for internal migration, attracting not only IDPs from other parts of the country, but also those seeking better economic prospects in the capital. The vast majority of Tbilisi's one million inhabitants were born elsewhere in the country.
Repatriation and Integration of Deported Meskhetians
Another group of forced migrants are of particular concern to many international supporters of the new Georgia. Originally from the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, the Meskhetians (also known as Meskhetian Turks) have been forcibly displaced twice in 60 years.
In 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of some 120,000 people (mainly Meskhetians but also Kurds and Khemshils) to Central Asia. Ethnic violence in the Ferghana Valley area of Uzbekistan in June 1989 forced many of the 160,000 descendents of this Muslim population to move again, scattering them across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. A large group lives in the Russian region of Krasnodar.
On joining the Council of Europe in 1999, Georgia signed up to a detailed, 12-year framework, committing to the voluntary return of Meskhetians who want to come to Georgia. Tbilisi has yet to adopt the laws required to allow this repatriation.
According to the original schedule, the Meskhetian repatriation laws should have been adopted in 2001, with the repatriation process being launched in 2003 and completed by 2011. However, in 2001, then-President Shevardnadze declared Georgia's limited resources could not, in the face of the massive needs of the IDP population, be used to repatriate Meskhetian Turks, and that the existing socio-economic circumstances would not favor their return.
In 2005, the Georgian government decided to set up a special commission to investigate the issues relating to repatriation.
It is not clear that significant numbers of the deported Meskhetian population would choose to repatriate to Georgia even if the option for them to do so is created by the Georgian authorities. Some 11,000 have chosen to apply for resettlement to the United States, since a program for the admission to the U.S. as refugees of Meskhetian Turks from Krasnodar was opened in 2004.
Emigration from Georgia
The first official census of independent Georgia was held in January 2002. The results, published in May 2003, indicated a population of about 4.4 million (see Table 2). This number includes the internally displaced people (IDPs), but not the current inhabitants of areas in South Ossetia and Abkhazia that are not under central government control.
The 2002 population level shows a drop of some 20 percent from the 1989 census, held while Georgia was still a republic of the USSR. Part of this drop is due to a declining birthrate; the rest is due to emigration. Analysts suggest that at least half of the people who have left went to the Russian Federation, and that many of them may well have been ethnic Russians.
It is thought that some 70,000 people live in South Ossetia and some 160,000 in Abkhazia, although some estimates put these figures significantly lower.
Estimates of the number of Georgians who left the country during the 1990s vary between 300,000 and more than 1.5 million. The most popular countries of immigration beyond Russia are Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Turkey, and the United States. Which EU Member States are most popular seems to depend largely on personal connections and changes in immigration policy in those countries.
Georgians continue to request asylum in Europe. The number of asylum applications made by Georgians has increased steadily since 2000, when there were only 3,998 applications in industrialized countries (see Table 3).
According to UNHCR, there were some 9,500 asylum applications made by Georgians in other countries in 2003, of which more than 7,000 were made in then EU-15 Member States, particularly in Austria, France, and Germany. A further 1,300 were made in 2003 in states that joined the EU in May 2004.
In 2004-2005, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture and the non-government organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch have documented a number of cases of apparent torture, degrading treatment, and discrimination, primarily at the hands of individual law enforcement officers. However, all agree the new government has started trying to deal with this problem, and that there is no officially perpetrated or sanctioned discrimination on the grounds of religion or ethnicity.
While some Georgians seeking asylum in industrialized countries are given status on the grounds of their individual case, the majority of Georgians who leave, including those with IDP status, apparently do so for primarily economic reasons.
Policymakers acknowledge the significant exodus from Georgia as one of the major challenges facing the country, and symptomatic of other, particularly socio-economic, problems.
The economy has been growing, but that has not yet translated into significantly improved socioeconomic conditions or employment opportunities for the population at large. If anything, it has thus far encouraged more internal migration towards Tbilisi.
Much of the Georgian population remains prepared to believe that change will happen under Saakashvili's rule. But some see their immediate future as involving temporary migration to Russia or EU countries to earn the money needed for a better life in Georgia.
Transit Migration and Border Issues
Two sorts of migrants pass through Georgia on their way to the EU: trafficked migrants and migrants from Asia and Africa who plan to seek either economic opportunities or asylum. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a majority of the trafficked migrants are women primarily from other former Soviet states.
In 2002-2003, IOM started a Dutch government-funded anti-trafficking campaign with the slogan "You are not for Sale." Posters were prominently displayed in key locations, including Tbilisi's airport, and information centers were established.
These information centers in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Gurjani received a total of 9,078 calls to their hotlines between July 2002 and December 2004, and 1,946 visitors to the offices. This level of calls and visits shows the impact of the campaign posters and leaflets, but also demonstrates the level of interest in emigration.
Transit migration is the facet of migration in Georgia which is of increasing concern to the European Union. The EU will both want to see stronger immigration controls in Georgia, as the Caucasus become the migration buffer zone of an expanded EU, and seek readmission agreements during negotiations of Action Plans under its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).
The EU launched its ENP in 2003, and included Georgia as one of the 17 countries of the neighborhood of the enlarged EU. For the EU, this new approach is primarily a matter of ensuring good relations with neighboring states on issues of perhaps mutual, but certainly EU, interest. In Georgia, if not in ENP states in North Africa and the Middle East, being part of the EU's neighborhood is interpreted as a first step towards the cherished goal of EU membership.
Georgia's borders are the focus of much concern. The smuggling of goods, cross-border movements of terrorists, and the simple territorial integrity of the borders are all priorities for the Georgian authorities and their immediate neighbors. As such, preventing or limiting transit migration at Georgia's frontiers is currently a low priority for the authorities. However, monitoring activities, previously conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have been suspended by a Russian veto of their continuation.
A Georgian Immigration and Asylum Policy
In order to deal with transit migration in a way that might prove satisfactory both to the EU in the longer-term and to Georgia itself, the government will need to develop a stronger approach to immigration and asylum within the country. These have never really been issues for the briefly independent Georgia, whose current laws and approaches to both immigration and asylum are intended to deal with very limited numbers of arrivals.
IOM has provided significant advice and capacity building to the authorities, both on the implementation of basic controls at ports of entry and on the development of a new immigration law. Such a law has been expected since before the Rose Revolution; however, the drafting process has not yet been completed.
To date, any need to regulate immigration has been primarily concerned with the staff of international organizations and NGOs, especially the humanitarian and development-oriented ones, as well as the diplomats stationed at the increasing number of embassies in Tbilisi (several countries use Tbilisi as their diplomatic base for the entire Caucasus region).
Other immigration regulation needs have included international business people; there are only a few hundred such people entering Georgia each year.
The majority of business-related migrants are temporary and are involved in oil and gas pipeline construction, not surprising given Georgia's strategic location. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, constructed by British Petroleum (BP) starting in 2003 and scheduled for completion in 2005, is one example. Many of the construction workers were non-Georgians who had worked previously for BP on other projects elsewhere in the world. They have entered and stayed in Georgia often for short periods only, although some have had longer-term contracts in the country.
Some in Georgia, including policymakers, have apparently voiced concern that temporary immigrants were employed in this massive construction project at the expense of Georgians who could have profited in many ways had they been able to take on both the initial building and later the maintenance work.
As far as irregular immigration to Georgia is concerned, it is currently primarily associated with transit migration. Over time, it may become a domestic issue, not only because of pressure from the EU, but also due to political and economic advances.
Georgia has been gradually easing its tight visa regime. In April 2005, the government announced its proposal to Parliament for the unilateral lifting of visas for citizens of the EU, U.S., Japan, Israel, and Canada. In 2004, Georgia simplified its visa requirements for Russians, and President Saakashvili announced on April 29, 2005 his intention to open negotiations with Moscow to achieve visa-free travel for Russian and Georgian citizens. Russia imposed visa requirements on Georgian citizens in 2001.
As far as asylum and refugee issues are concerned, attention within Georgia is primarily directed at the approximately 8,000 Chechens, mostly in the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous area that directly neighbors Chechnya and is home to their ethnic kin, the Kist.
Some of those who were initially registered as refugees were of ethnic Kist origin; they had moved into Chechnya, but were originally Georgian. Others among the Chechens originally counted as refugees had been included twice, as they tried to get more access to scarce resources handed out by the government, UNHCR, and NGOs. Recent UNHCR refugee status determination has indicated that some 2,600 of those people in the Pankisi Gorge are, in fact, refugees.
On May 28, 2005, an official, voluntary repatriation program began for some 220 Chechens wishing to return to Chechnya, mainly old people. Many of the Chechens currently in the Pankisi Gorge remain cautious about returning, however, as their security cannot be guaranteed in the break-away Russian region. The Russian authorities have promised the returnees temporary shelter in Chechnya, and said they will be secure there.
The presence of Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge is a source of some tension between Georgia and Russia. The Russians perceive their presence there as indicative of Georgia harboring terrorists.
There have been several cross-border "events" including incursions and extraditions of Chechens to Russia. The extraditions have not only highlighted the politics of the relationship between Russia and Georgia, but also caused many to question the human rights situation under the new government. The European Court on Human Rights has, on at least two occasions, ruled in favor of the Chechens who were extradited, and imposed compensatory penalties on the Georgian government.
Although the status of the Chechens has been determined by UNHCR in agreement with the Georgian authorities, Georgia does also have a basic asylum law. Georgia acceded to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees in May 1999. The Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation (MRA) is responsible for processing asylum claims.
According to the 2002 census, 3,249 people have requested asylum in Georgia since independence, and remain in the country; 3,327 of these are from the Russian Federation (overwhelmingly Chechens), and 215 are from Ukraine.
In the last two years, according to the MRA, there have been some 32 asylum claims, of which half were made by Azeris. The Deputy Minister is responsible for the procedure and decisions on claims while the law requires the president to make a personal decision on each claim.
Migration issues are far from being a top priority for a country with a wide range of territorial, political, and economic problems. Nonetheless, the situation of Georgia's IDPs in particular is inextricably linked with those higher priorities.
With ambitions to prove the country's progress by ultimately becoming a serious candidate for EU membership, broader migration issues related to human rights, including the return of long-time displaced populations and the factors inducing significant emigration, need to be effectively handled and not exacerbated.
In the longer-term, Georgia's inclusion among Western and European democracies will be both challenged and proved by its ability to hold the country together, control its borders in the face of all challenges — including irregular entry — and establish an effective immigration and asylum law and policy.
The author conducted research in Tbilisi in July 2004 and February 2005, interviewing NGO, international organization, and government officials, as well as a small group of IDPs.
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