Georgia and migration: a policy trap

Europe's politics of migration control are being exported to Georgia with potentially dangerous results, says Gavin Slade.

Gavin Slade
23 December 2013

The detention and deportation of immigrants have become key strategies of border control in the European Union. The length of detention and the numbers deported vary by country, but the general trend has been towards a huge increase in these actions over the last decade. In the UK since the 1990s, the capacity for immigrant detention has increased by a factor of fourteen, and the number of deportees from 11,000 in 1997 to 41,000 in 2011. Both have been enabled by legislation widening criminalisation and harshening the penalties for breaches of immigration law.

The securitisation of borders and migration, and rising barriers to claiming residency and citizenship status, are connected to anxieties over undocumented migration as well as transnational organised crime in the form of human smuggling and trafficking. The countries of southern Europe have become battlegrounds in terms of irregular migration. As much as 3% of Greece’s population might be made up of undocumented migrants, while the European Union’s border service, Frontex, has intervened to virtually take control of the union’s southern borders.

However, the borders of the European Union do not end with the territories of its member-states. The post-Soviet republic of Georgia has passed draft laws, incentivised by the EU which it aspires to join, which appear to externalise the EU’s domestic-control functions and make Georgia part of a "law enforcement buffer zone" outside the union. This buffer-zone has already been clearly established within other, "sender", countries on the EU periphery, where inward immigration has never been a political issue. The buffer is now expanding far beyond the EU’s borders.

A budding anxiety

The Georgian laws have been prompted in part by an EU "carrot" - the Action Plan on Visa Liberalisation (APVL) that, if the right reforms are made, promises Georgians freer travel to EU countries. Frontex has already been assisting Georgia’s border police with the physical and technological aspects of border-control and information-collection. Now, in the name of "migration management", a new law that comes into force in January 2014 will empower police to inspect foreigners and demand proof of leave to remain. Moreover, further laws now passing through parliament will reinstate visa regimes for a list of countries as well as set up a system for the policing, detention and deportation of unwanted foreigners.

The tragic irony is that hundreds of Georgians themselves are pursued by police, languish in immigration-removal centres, and are deported from the EU every year (whether as undocumented migrants, over-stayers, failed asylum-seekers or ex-prisoners). Indeed, as part of the APVL, Georgia is being asked to speed up protocols for readmission agreements that would make it easier for EU countries to be rid of their unwanted Georgians. Now Georgia may well begin creating and then treating irregular migrants in exactly the same way.

It is worth emphasising just what a big change this is for Georgia. Currently, Georgia is one of the most open countries in the world. The previous United National Movement (UNM) government, defeated in the election of October 2012, instituted one of the most liberal visa regimes possible, allowing virtually any person from any country to come to the tiny Caucasus country visa-free and stay for one year. This openness had certain negative consequences in terms of population control and taxation, but also great benefits: Georgia attracted both tourist revenues and investment (some of it large-scale, but much from small-time Iranian entrepreneurs or Armenians seeking a cheap car deal). It also attracted refugees fleeing conflict or repression in nearby regions from Afghanistan to Syria; the numbers coming to Georgia increased by 26% from 2011-12, for example.

In this liberal atmosphere, some migrants have found it easy to simply enter and overstay in the country. There are, though few recorded refugees, in part as those intending to travel onwards are discouraged from claiming refugee status; estimates of irregular migrants are also low, with few likely to want to remain in the country for the long term (the government has said that around 8,000 have arrived from a single, unspecified, country.) Instead, then, behind the new laws to more effectively deal with unwanted foreigners stands the budding anxiety around the issue of irregular migration into the EU. By assisting, indeed pushing, Georgia to take up the same controversial methods of regulating migration, the EU is ensuring that countries aspiring to membership but far beyond its borders are becoming the new frontiers of "Fortress Europe".

A punitive model

It is, clearly, any country’s right to control and regulate its territory. But the most worrying aspects of the new laws concern that most pertinent to the EU - undocumented migration. The new powers of the Georgian police to identify and inspect foreigners could soon descend into racial profiling. The right of any state to deprive individuals of liberty in detention-centres due solely to their status is highly questionable. In Georgia, migrants marked for expulsion in the "temporary accommodation centre" being currently built may end up languishing indefinitely while all the paperwork is prepared for their expulsion (migrants must possess travelling documents from their country's embassy, which might or might not be present in Georgia, and have made practical arrangements, though Georgia is hardly well served by inexpensive commercial flights.)

Moreover, deportation itself can breach an individual’s human right to privacy and a family life, as well as violating the principle of "non-refoulement". Under the new law, courts will make decisions about deportations. But in a country where the courts are far from independent, an opaque decision-making process by the interior minister - determining the level of security threat a migrant poses - will seal the fate of individuals.

The history of this punitive model of migration management in Europe suggests that such a beginning, where deportation is at first simply left to the discretion of a minister, is a slippery slope in which the grounds for, first, the incarceration and then, deportation of undesirable foreigners widen as the criminalisation of acts connected to migration broadens. The EU experience has shown that as penalties for immigration crimes harshen, and attitudes and economic exclusion of migrants worsen, prisons simply fill up with foreigners. In the EU, on average, the proportion of foreigners in prison is more than four times higher than in society - roughly equivalent to the disproportionate representation of African-Americans imprisoned in the United States. In Italy and Belgium, it is fourteen times higher; in Greece, foreigners make up around 63% of the total prison population.

A dangerous road

This is where such a model of migration management leads. Georgia released half the prison population in a mass amnesty, so its prisons have a lot of space. The rhetoric against domestic criminals has fallen since the UNM left office, to be replaced by Georgian Dream. The laws being passed in parliament may prove to be the opening of an effectively EU-backed campaign against a new immigrant enemy in Georgia. In that case the new government should tread carefully: by monitoring police practice, utilising available alternatives to detention, and be sparing with its use of deportation.

The Georgian Dream government is clearly uneasy about foreign influence on Georgia's cultural and social life. In this context there is a further irony: that it is foreigners who are now pushing for the new laws on migration - laws that in the main will affect some (non-European) migrants but not (European) others.

Clearly, Georgia is in a bind. Its strong attraction to the EU rather than Russia as a natural future home gives little room for manoeuvre with EU representatives on an issue as fraught as that of undocumented migration. Yet, in essence, Georgia is being co-opted into doing the EU’s dirty work for it, and in the process going down a dangerous road of exclusionary politics.

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