The Untapped Potential of Georgians Abroad

Migration has dramatically reshaped Georgia. More than one million people have left the country due to the civil wars, unrest, unemployment, and overall chaos in the country following the breakup of the Soviet Union. This has resulted in a demographic crunch, an aging population, and low birth rates. But Georgians abroad are also the bedrock of the country’s financial well-being: some $1.3 billion in remittances were sent to Georgia in 2012, according to government figures, constituting roughly 8.4 percent of Georgia’s gross domestic product (GDP). Georgians abroad can further help their country’s Euro-Atlantic integration through investment, skills transfer, and sharing of best business and government practices.

In February 2013, the European Union (EU) presented the authorities in Tbilisi with a Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) in February 2013. It would move forward from the 2010 Visa Facilitation Agreement that eased the visa application process and reduced visa costs. Now, Georgia is expected to implement further reforms in document security, border control, migration, public order, and human rights to achieve an eventual visa-free regime, as Moldova did earlier this month.

A clear, effective, transparent, and comprehensive diaspora strategy addressing out migration and population loss will provide Georgia with a firm foundation for allied policymakers and the government to move the country toward Euro-Atlantic institutions. By getting this piece right, Georgia will demonstrate its ability to succeed in accomplishing the ambitious political, security, and economic transformations it has undertaken in a coordinated and reform-oriented manner.

Migration: Trends in Georgia
Migration is one of the main reasons why Georgia’s population is expected to decrease 19 percent from 4,389,000 in 2010 to 3,563,000 by 2050. According to World Bank estimates, Georgia is one of eleven countries worldwide, including Japan, Belarus, and Bulgaria, expected lose at least a third of their 2005 working age populations by 2050.

Georgians living abroad come from diverse backgrounds. Today, one in ten households has a member living abroad.  Many elites and highly skilled workers left during the 1990s; now, limited job opportunities have caused young people to follow suit. Among some of the popular destinations for Georgians are Greece, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Russia. Migrants tend to be well educated and many hold white-collar jobs abroad, but many others are underemployed in domestic fields, hospitality, and construction.

Migration is often seen as an economic necessity and not a choice. The good news for both the Georgian government, which is concerned about the draining of the country’s highly skilled workforce and demographic decline, and EU countries, which are concerned about a potential influx of new immigrants is that given a choice, Georgians would prefer to remain in Georgia. According to the 2012 Caucasus Barometer (CB), some 42 percent of Georgians would like to temporarily live elsewhere, but only 6 percent of Georgians would want to permanently do so.

In 2008, during the tenure of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian government created the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for Diaspora Issues to look into leveraging the skills and resources of Georgians abroad. This new ministry and other government bureaus have been tasked with creating a migration management system, helping to reintegrate returnees, and decreasing human trafficking. The Georgian government has made some progress in improving the legal frameworks that regulate migration and improving border management. The Joint Declaration on the Mobility Partnership (2009), the Visa Facilitation Agreement (2011), and the Readmission Agreement (2011) have enhanced cooperation on migration management issues between Georgia and the EU, more closely aligning the country’s regulations to those required by the EU. Facilitated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the EU is helping build the capacity of local authorities in managing migration return and reintegration and disseminating information.

Potential of the Georgian Diaspora
If harnessed properly, the Georgian diaspora can play a crucial role in assisting a national development agenda, providing financial capital, transferring knowledge, and integrating the country into global networks.  

Remittances and Diaspora Bonds
According to a study conducted by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ), two important ways to encourage engagement and leverage diaspora resources is through deposits such as diaspora bonds and securing remittance flows, which would capitalize markets and improve the country’s credit rating.

Remittances are a stable and resilient financial inflow for Georgia’s economy. Remittances promote macro-economic stability and act as insurance against adverse shocks during crises and natural disasters, as well as improving sustainability and creditworthiness of recipient accounts. By making up for foreign exchange losses resulting from these shocks, remittances can help smooth consumption and thus play a part in maintaining a country’s economic stability.

Diaspora bonds are another way migrants can support their home country, by investing in this long-term fixed-income instrument. These bonds are used to finance large-scale infrastructure development and have been successfully used in countries such as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Lebanon.

Policy Implications
The EU’s promise of visa liberalization and the possibility of eventual visa-free travel is a huge driver of migration reform. Eastern Partnership countries (EaP) such as Georgia must hit sixty benchmarks that cover comprehensive domestic reforms and show the EU that it is not a source of unwanted migration.

The VLAP is a two-step process in which EaP countries adopt legislation and then implement reforms. The European Commission assesses the migratory and security risks of future visa-free travel. Unlike those with countries in the western Balkans, the VLAPs with EaP countries do not guarantee a visa-free regime, though they provide the possibility for one. The EU and the Georgian government cooperate on migration policy via Mobility Partnerships. The action plan requires that EaP countries implement reforms such as improving security of passports and travel documents, managing migration, fighting organized crime, and protecting minorities.

A 2013 study on labor migration concludes that visa liberalization with EaP countries will not lead to massive outmigration. Easing visa regimes permits a better matching of migrants to employment opportunities in the EU. This facilitates recognition of migrants’ educational qualifications and skills and improves the pitfall of underemployment. Legal employment and the right to move between the origin country and the EU are also preconditions for promoting circular migration patterns, whereby migrants split their time between origin and destination country. A circular migration pattern now exists for Polish caregivers working in Italy and Northern Europe, aided by the EU Services Directive that allows Polish firms to provide certain services abroad under Polish wages and working conditions.

Recommendations for the Georgian Government
Georgia’s Diaspora Issues, Refugees and Accommodation, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Finance Ministries need to better assess the country’s migratory environment, coordinate and improve reintegration, protect those who work abroad, and work toward improving the local economy and creating jobs.

The ministries should coordinate their efforts. Job counseling, vocational training, and labor market surveys can help to improve employment prospects for returning migrants or internally displaced persons. The appropriate ministry needs to allocate sufficient human and financial resources for reintegration assistance. The Diaspora Ministry should create a comprehensive, inclusive, detailed, and targeted diaspora strategy that is aligned with the national development, economic, and foreign policy goals and establish mechanisms to gain accurate, reliable data on migrants and strengthen data collection capacities on migration. These mechanisms need to clarify the professional, financial, and social capital of the diaspora and match them with concrete development strategies.

By establishing the formation of elite diasporas abroad, the ministries can encourage knowledge transfer and “brain gain” by leveraging the positive aspects of intellectual migration. The government should also facilitate financial inflows such as remittances and diaspora bonds by increasing capacity and placing clear frameworks.

Recommendations for the EU
Security-based thinking still dominates the EU’s visa policy and there is a real concern of an influx of illegal migrants. However, smart border control policies, short-term employment opportunities, and close cooperation between EU law enforcement agencies and partner countries are also efficient and inclusive ways to maintain European security. 

Visa-free travel is one of the important carrots that the EU can offer Georgians who continue to undertake painful reforms at home in the short term in order to imbed the country firmly in EU structures.

The EU should intensify cooperation between EU agencies and the Georgian government via Mobility Partnerships and allocate sufficient political and financial resources to the broader mobility agenda. Where possible, the EU should apply a differentiated approach that takes into account on-the-ground and Georgia-specific needs in the area of migration.

Democratization and European integration in the region will be improved by facilitating connections between Georgians and EU citizens. Visa-free travel can improve tourism and create favorable conditions for trade and business on both sides.

Migration has gained a great deal of attention within the Georgian government, as is reflected in the creation of the Office of the State Minister for Diaspora Issues. An effective diaspora strategy should align with the technical requirements imposed by the EU’s VLAP but also support the country’s national development and economic strategies. Georgia has made good progress in implementing the first phase of VLAP benchmarks. It has already implemented legislative and policy reforms on document security and border management and is working toward implementing legislative reforms for migration management and for asylum seekers. Visa-free travel may help Georgia on its democratic path and hopefully promote economic growth for both the EU and Georgia in the long term.

Darejani Markozashvili is a recent graduate of Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, with a Master of Arts in International Relations.

Laura Linderman is the Associate Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council

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