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Surge in Georgians requesting asylum raises fears the country could lose its visa-free travel status in Europe

Visa-free travel regime, one of the main achievements in EU-Georgia relations, now under increased scrutiny as numbers rise

The surge in Georgians seeking refuge in Ireland is a growing headache, not only for the State’s creaking asylum system but also for a Black Sea nation that could lose its cherished right to visa-free travel to most of the European Union if it fails to manage emigration.

The number of Georgians requesting protection in the EU this year could surpass pre-pandemic levels when Georgia, under pressure from member states to tackle the issue, tightened controls at its airports and passed new legislation.

More than 1,100 Georgians have sought asylum in the State this year — more than any other nationality bar Ukrainians — despite their homeland being considered a so-called safe country of origin by Ireland and many other EU members, and the extremely low success rate for such applications across the bloc.

Officials and experts say poverty, not conflict or persecution, is the main driver of migration among Georgians, who since 2017 have been able to travel without a visa to the EU’s so-called Schengen area, from where some then move on to Ireland, which is not part of the 26-nation zone.

“From 2017-2020 we had a serious issue with Georgians migrating to the Schengen area under the visa-free regime, when they would go just as tourists and the moment they land request asylum,” says an EU official based in the country’s capital, Tbilisi.

“The pandemic and closure of air travel cooled this down but now we are back with a high number of Georgians flying to the Schengen area and staying there [longer than the permitted 90 days] ... Compared to 2021 we now see an increase of 69 per cent [in overstays], so this is becoming again one of the main concerns in bilateral relations,” she adds.

“This has been raised by EU ambassadors here — that there is again a need for another push from the EU family here with the authorities — to make sure this is controlled.”

Ireland does not have a diplomatic mission in Tbilisi, and issues tourist and other visas to Georgians from its embassy 1,800km away across the Black Sea in Sofia, Bulgaria.

George Zurabashvili, Georgia’s ambassador to Dublin, describes a time-consuming process that should, in theory, allow for close monitoring of the number of Georgians travelling to Ireland and nudge many prospective migrants towards other EU destinations.

“There is a whole bunch of documents that have to be prepared in advance and sent with passports [to Sofia], including confirmation of a return ticket, accommodation and an invitation ... and officially it takes two or three weeks to come back from the embassy in Bulgaria, but it can take longer,” he says.

Mr Zurabashvili says that Georgian citizens officially residing in EU countries must also obtain a visa to visit Ireland, and that in his long experience he has “never, ever heard of fake [Irish] visas” being used by his compatriots to enter the State. However, there are persistent reports of Georgians presenting fake EU identity cards to board flights to Ireland, and Dublin courts have convicted several Georgians in recent years for producing and selling such documents to compatriots in other European states.

In 2019 Irish border authorities began checking identity papers at the steps of arriving aircraft to stop some passengers destroying false documents and then claiming asylum at passport control; a move that focused particularly on Georgians and Albanians. Irish officials said asylum requests from citizens of both countries plummeted due to the measures, which placed the onus on airlines to fully check the documents of passengers or face having to take back barred travellers immediately on return flights.

Rights groups said the practice — which was later scaled back — violated international and Irish law, and they also criticised a decision this month to suspend visa-free travel to Ireland for refugees living in 20 European countries, as the State struggles to cope with the influx of more than 40,000 Ukrainians fleeing war, and other asylum seekers.

With the post-Brexit end of free movement between the UK and EU, some migrants, including Georgians, are thought to be using Ireland as a “back door” to Britain via the Common Travel Area, while Taoiseach Micheál Martin says London’s decision to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda may now be pushing more migrants towards Ireland.

“Generally I think Georgians are looking for the weak spots in the immigration and asylum systems of target countries and those differ per year,” says Marc Hulst, programme co-ordinator for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Tbilisi.

“In Germany, the number of asylum claims has also grown quite considerably this year, with about 4,000 claims being posted as of June. In France the statistics are much the same ... and France in particular is seen as a country that is quite generous in the medical care it offers to asylum seekers.”

Remittances from abroad accounted for 12.9 per cent of Georgia’s GDP in 2019 — twice as much as farming — and are vital to many in a country where the average household monthly income last year was €400, one in six people lives below the poverty line, inflation is about 13 per cent and unemployment is at 20 per cent and twice that among the young.

Yet migrant workers who just want to earn money to send home can also be an irritant in Tbilisi’s relations with the EU, which reserves the right to suspend Georgia’s visa-free travel regime if its citizens are linked to a sharp rise in overstays, unfounded asylum claims, entry refusals at EU borders or criminality.

Hulst says “Georgia generally doesn’t want any of its western allies to be bothered by people claiming asylum in a basically unfounded way”, so Ireland’s current concerns will carry weight despite it not being part of the Schengen area.

“The visa-free regime is one of the main achievements in EU-Georgia relations and completely changed the life of many people in Georgia, so having the visa-free regime suspended would have a high political cost for the ruling party,” says the Tbilisi-based EU official.

“The Georgian government is very sensitive to this because they know it has high political risk for them. They have been very open to implementing any measure that can help us reduce those numbers.”

The EU delegation and IOM broadly praised the way Georgia responded to EU concerns in previous years, by tightening pre-departure document checks at airports, criminalising activity that aids illegal migration, running information campaigns to discourage false asylum claims and helping citizens return home voluntarily. In a bid to regulate emigration and reduce asylum claims while facilitating work abroad, Tbilisi has agreed so-called circular migration schemes with several EU states, under which a set number of Georgians travel to do certain jobs for a fixed period before returning home — and it is keen to discuss such a possibility with Ireland.

Mukhran Gulaghashvili, head of the diaspora relations department at Georgia’s foreign ministry, says he believes Ireland requires tens of thousands of workers — perhaps a reference to a recent report by training agency Solas that 50,000 construction workers are needed urgently if the Government is to meet its targets for new housing.

“We estimate there is a high need for workers at the lower- and mid-skill levels in Ireland ... and this can be one of the best ways of regulating our migration with Ireland,” Mr Gulaghashvili says of a potential circular migration agreement.

“We are absolutely open to dialogue, so that European states can see that we are a trustworthy partner.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe