Georgia is one of the latest country to join the ongoing conversation about refugees feeling conflict from Iraq and Syria. Georgia’s position on the issue was detailed by the European Parliament rapporteur on Georgia Andrejs Mamikins who stated, “Georgia may receive Syrian refugees from Europe… However the decision to accept this would be political goodwill, as the potential refugee stream to Tbilisi does not affect the migration crisis in the EU.”
Georgia has a longer history with refugees crises than outside observers may realize, dating back to 1994. Additionally, after the Second Chechen War in 1999, Georgia had to handle a sizeable inflow of Chechen refugees. Georgia has always been supportive towards the people in need. In the last two years, Georgia has received up to 3,500 asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan. However, most of them left the country with the hope of receiving shelter in Europe. However, most of the refugees who originally settled in Georgia, have left for European countries with more employment prospects, higher standards of living and better social care package. As David Adamov, the head of the National Congress of Assyrians states, “Europe has different conditions, so not only Assyrian refugees, but other ethnical groups also have a will to go move to Europe. Probably if Georgia helps these people more, they will stay in Georgia”.
While talking about the refugees coming from different conflict zones, we should keep in mind that Georgia is a country with 263,598 registered IDPs (122,383 men and 141,215 women) spread across the country in all regions (See figure below):
Georgia has spent over 60,000,000 GEL (approx. 0.77% of the total state budget) over the last 9 months on IDPs, out of which, approximately 51,000,000 GEL was spent only on housing.
Does Georgia know how to deal with refugees and how to encourage their reintegration? We seem to believe that refugees are people deserving of care. Looking at Georgia’s policies towards its own IDPs does not leave much optimism in regards to its ability to handle new refugees. IDPs are concentrated in a single place and isolated from almost every social and economic dynamic around the country.
So why would Georgia want to accommodate the Syrian Refugees while it has its own IDPs to care about? Is this an act of kindness, or is it just ticking a box on the checklist to the EU membership? It is unclear whether or not Georgia realizes what the cost and tradeoffs of accommodating Syrian Refugees are. The EU seems to be using the ongoing Visa Liberalization process with Georgia as bargaining chip, given that with more freedoms of movement to and from Europe, more refugees may stay in Georgia as a result.
What we should realize before making a decision about receiving Syrian Refugees is that helping these people is a more complex process than just providing them with essentials. A more responsible refugee policy gives displaced people a livelihood, and a place to call home, and Georgia is in no position to do that for victims of the Syrian conflict and we can see this with its policy towards other ethnic minorities.
Georgia covers a territory of 69,700 square kilometers which accommodates Ethnic Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Greeks, Jews, Russians, Turks and Chechens. Across Georgia are several strong communities, such as the Azeri community in Kakheti, the Armenian community in Samtskhe –Javakheti, Turkish community in mountains of Adjara, and the Chechen community in Pankisi. These communities remain ethnically homogenized and not well integrated with greater Georgian society. With this precedence, creating another isolated community of ethnic and religious minorities will only exacerbate the problem which could have dire consequences – in some regions like Pankisi, these complexities include Georgian passport holders fighting with extremists in Syria.
We all agree that Georgia is a member of the western community and we must contribute to the common goals of this community. But have we thought carefully enough about how and to what extent should we keep ‘contributing’? As Mother Teresa said “If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one”. I suggest that this might be a time when Georgia should give up its ‘hospitality’ as it is described in the old Georgian toasts at traditional Georgian Supra, and know its limits. We can follow Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia who pledge from USD 42K to USD 318K and are considering from 5 to 75 Asylum Applications. Georgia should carefully assess its capability and think before it takes any responsibility over accommodating the Syrian Refugees.
While this article is advocating against accepting Syrian refugees, it is important to note that refugees are not the strain on an economy that many on the political fringes believe them to be. With proper policies providing services and integration, refugees end up being a neutral or value-added benefit to the economy in question. There is a great misconception among European leaders today about what refugees’ needs are. These people may look destitute when they migrate, but these people were former laborers in economies that have now been completely destroyed – not the unskilled, non-working, welfare consumers that many perceive them to be. People fleeing conflict bring a wide variety of skills to their new homes. This is especially relevant for European countries with demographic problems and an undersupplied workforce. In turn, once settled, these people pay taxes, go out to restaurants, buy tickets to football matches, and all other activities that add to national income. But, all this economic benefit is first predicated on a welfare system that can accommodate their transition, and a labor market in need of a variety of laborers. This is simply not the case in Georgia where we cannot even provide quality integration services to our own internal refugees and other at risk populations.
Not only should the economic effects be considered, but also the social ones. We certainly don’t want to observe a new community which is less integrated into the social and economic life of the country like the Azeribaijani and Armenian populations. Let’s assume that Georgia decides to accept the refugees, than Georgia should avoid the strategy of ‘settling the refugees all together’ and it’s certainly not the geographic location that worries us. We should try to locate them all over the country, encourage the refugees’ integration into the Georgian society. Georgia should also work hard at the first stages of integration, to ensure the Refugees’ contribute to economy and not make them an ‘additional cost’. All this will be much easier with a smaller number of the refugees accepted, and at the same time Georgia will be able to maintain the image of an EU partner and keep receiving the ‘tradeoffs.’
As Minister of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees Of Georgia has stated at the 66th session of the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva on October 5, 2015 “In the framework of the EU Visa Liberalization process, several legislative changes were implemented using the recommendations of the European Commission and the ministry took notable measures for the integration of the refugee and humanitarian status holders”. Accommodating Syrian Refugees and Visa Liberalization is therefore interconnected. This is a deal in which we should try to get as much return as possible. So maybe this time around, Georgia would be well served to advocate for its own domestic interests, instead of once again playing the role of a puppy dog begging for scraps at the EU’s dinner table.
Should Georgia accept Syrian asylum seekers? It is not a YES/NO question. The answer to that question should be a well-thought and nuanced response to: ‘Does Georgia have the essential knowledge and ability to responsibly manage asylum seekers from Syria?’
About author: Nino Lortkipanidze, Vice President at International School of Economics, Tbilisi