Challenges of new immigration policies of Georgia
- I. Problematic Amendments
- II. Analysis of Problems Caused by the Amendments
- Unreasonable Reduction of Countries with Visa-free Regimes
- Termination of Procedures of Issuing Visas on Border and Prolongation of Visas on the Territory of Georgia
- Low number of foreign diplomatic missions
- Impossibility to Fill out Application Online
- Unreasonable timeframe for Issuing Residence Permit and Visas
- Grounds to Deny Issuing Residence Permit
- Regular and Unjustified Use of Article 18(1)(a)
- Ineffective Mechanisms to Appeal Denial of Residence Permit
- III. Information Reported by Foreigners regarding Practical Problems
- IV. Conclusion
- V. Recommendations
Challenges of new immigration policies of Georgia
On 1 September, the new Law on Legal Status of Aliens and Stateless Persons took effect. This means that Georgia has new immigration rules. These legislative amendments imposed significantly stricter regulations. The Government of Georgia justified the necessity of the new rules principally by referring to the obligations undertaken within frames of the visa liberalization dialogue with the European Union. Transparency International Georgia studied the new regulations and surveyed the individuals who were personally affected by the new law.
We found that some of the new amendments to the law create unreasonable complications for foreign citizens to enter Georgia and obtain residence rights, as well as create problems for foreign students studying in Georgia, investors or residents of Georgia who live here to unite with the family.
Before 1 September 2014
After 1 September 2014
Since 1 September, visas for foreigners are no longer issued by the State Service Development Agency (Public Service Halls). According to the new law, obtaining a Georgian visa is impossible on the territory of Georgia. This applies to all foreign citizens regardless of their purpose of stay in Georgia. However, it is worth to note that the norm permitting prolongation of diplomatic and special service visas in Georgia is still in force.
Under the new regulation, obtaining an ordinary visa at the state border is practically impossible. Doing so is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.
Consequently, foreign citizens who reside in Georgia will have to refer to the missions of Georgia in their respective countries. This may create a significant obstacle for those visa applicants whose countries do not host Georgian missions.
However, under the new law, foreigners who entered Georgia without visa before 1 September 2014 or who entered Georgia with a visa issued before 1 September 2014 will not be obligated to return to their countries to obtain long-term visas. Such individuals have the right to submit a visa application and other required documents to obtain long-term visa after 1 September to the consular department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.
Before 1 September 2014
After 1 September 2014
Georgian visas and residence permits are the principle legal grounds for foreigners to enter and reside in Georgia. Foreign citizens who are staying in Georgia for employment, business, studying as well as reuniting with their families require a residence permit, which is issued by the State Service Development Agency.
According to the law in force before 1 September 2014, the precondition for issuing a residence permit was legal stay in Georgia i.e. staying in the country with any type of visa (including ordinary visa – so-called tourist visa) or without one (for foreign citizens who can enter Georgia without visa).
According to the new law, precondition for issuing temporary residence permit is a visa which was issued for the same purpose as the residence permit is required for. For instance, if a foreign citizen would like to get a study residence permit, she must have obtained a D3 type (study) immigration visa. In the case of a work residence permit, a D1/D2 type (employment) immigration visa is required.
Because obtaining a Georgian visa inside Georgia has become practically impossible since September 1st, a citizen of any foreign country planning to stay in Georgia for more than 90 days within a 180-day period will first have to obtain a long-term immigration visa at the diplomatic missions of Georgia abroad. This is issued by the consulates in 30 days. After obtaining the visa, she will still need a residence permit for Georgia, also issued in 30 days. These procedures also apply to foreign citizens who do not require a visa to enter Georgia.
Before 1 September 2014
After 1 September 2014
Before 1 September 2014, any type of visa holder had the right to stay in Georgia for 360 days, computed from the day of entry. The same applied to foreign citizens who did not require a visa to enter Georgia. Only exceptions were cases such as a 90-day period for citizens of the Russian Federation, holders of Laisser Passer.
Under the new law, the period of stay has been significantly reduced. From the original 360 days the stay has been reduced to a maximum of 90 days within 180 days. This means that out of a 180-day long period, one can only stay in Georgia for 90 days. Note that 90 days may be an uninterrupted period or a combination of several smaller periods, e.g. 30+30+30).
Due to the fact that it is impossible to prolong a visa in Georgia, a foreign citizen has to obtain a residence permit before this deadline (in case of long-term visa) or leave the country.
The number of countries whose citizens were exempted from visa requirement to enter Georgia has been reduced from 117 to 104. The visa-free rights were removed for citizens of 13 countries, including Iraq, Latin American countries and several countries in the Caribbean.
First and foremost, although the Association Agreement and the Visa Liberalization Action Plan with the EU contained the requirement to regulate migration polices, it would not be correct to argue that the EU asked Georgia to adopt such regulations. The discretion of regulation was fully within the hands of the Georgian authorities, and, certainly, it is the one to bear the responsibility for creating the unreasonable bureaucratic barriers.
Above we listed the amendments introduced by the new law which, to our opinion, unreasonably complicates the procedures for foreign citizens to enter and reside in Georgia, pose unjustified problems to foreign students studying in Georgia, investors or anyone who would like to live in Georgia to reunite with the family.
The public was not given any reasonable argument as to why the number of states whose citizens could enter Georgia visa-free has been reduced. It is notable that the new list is not similar to the list of countries which could enter the Schengen Area visa-free. For example, it is unclear why they have imposed visa requirements to citizens of Chile and not to – citizens of Belize or Botswana.
As practice shows, the biggest problems were caused by termination of issuing visas in Georgia, especially because a long-term visa has become a required precondition for a residence permit. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave such an argument regarding the termination of issuing visas on border: “[Issuing visas on the border] pose various problems in terms of administration of data on foreign citizens.” According to them, “the decision was made to improve visa application procedures and management of migration processes.” However, this reasoning goes against the termination of issuing visas on the territory of Georgia as Georgian consulates abroad, which issue visas, obtain information on applicant foreigners from relevant state agencies in Georgia - principally from Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Internal Affairs. Without such information, it is impossible to issue visas on time. For this very reason, it is a step backwards in terms of the effective administration. These are unreasonable barriers for visa applicants that often imply wasted time and resources.
Georgian diplomatic missions exist only in 58 countries. Their scarcity creates significant barriers for citizens of those countries where Georgian consulate does not exist.
Special difficulties arise for those foreign citizens who have to go to another country to obtain the Georgian visa and this country has visa requirement for them. Such an example would be that Iraqis have to go to the Georgian consulate in Ankara for visa procedures.
The fact that only consulates provide these services now creates no less inconvenience for citizens of bigger countries. For example, individuals residing in Hong Kong have to travel to Beijing to obtain the visa, while U.S. citizens of California, to Washington D.C. This will significantly reduce the tourist flow in Georgia and will damage the tourism companies working for tourists from these regions.
The instances discussed above greatly increase time and monetary costs.
It would possible to solve many of the problems described above in a simpler manner – by creating the mechanism to submit visa applications online. Notably, the existing laws envisage the possibility to obtain resident permit over distance. However, this right is not implemented in the practice and the State Service Development Agency does not offer this service to foreigners. The Agency could not cite any specific date when such service might be launched.
Applications for residence permit must be submitted to local offices of the LEPL State Service Development Agency and the LEPL Public Service Halls of the Ministry of Justice of Georgia. The Agency considers the application for 30 days. Residence permits can be issued for only those individuals who visited Georgia for purposes other than tourism (study, work etc.) and therefore already hold an immigration visa. Due to the fact that the state already ensures to check all relevant risks at the visa issuance step it is unreasonable to have a second 30-day-long delay.
Under the existing law, after granting immigration visa, a foreign citizen may be denied a residency permit on the following grounds (Article 18 of the Law):
- there is a decision of an authorized body on the advisability of his/her residence in Georgia with regard to safeguarding state security and/or public safety interests, which includes the following: (1) the presence of the person in Georgia poses a threat to the relations with other states and/or international organizations; (2) there is information indicating a high degree of probability of the person’s connection with: the armed forces of the country/organization with hostile attitude to the defense and security of Georgia; the intelligence services of another state; terrorist and/or extremist organizations; (3) the illegal circulation of drugs, arms, weapons of mass destruction or their components, human trafficking and/or other criminal organizations (including transnational criminal organizations);
- he/she has committed a crime against peace and humanity;
- he/she is wanted for a criminal offence or is convicted of a grave crime committed within the last five years before submitting the application;
- he/she has such a grave infectious disease.
Verification procedures regarding the mentioned grounds are pursued after the foreign citizen has obtained a visa and she already resides in Georgia. Such rules cannot be considered reasonable considering the special nature of the risks covered under the said grounds. Such grounds can reasonably be used to deny a person from entering the country. Therefore, it would more advisable to verify these risk-factors when issuing visas or crossing the border. In the situation when such persons are already in Georgia, this article makes little sense. In cases when such individuals commit violations of the law in Georgia, other mechanisms can be employed to hold him or her accountable.
There are many cases when foreign citizens are denied issuance of residence permit on the grounds of Article 18(1)(a) (a decision of an authorized body on the advisability of his/her residence in Georgia), which by law means that these people pose significant threat to the country. Concrete examples of uses of this clause create a suspicion that certain officials have utilized this clause with unreasonable broad discretion. With this, the cases when an individual violates the law should not be used for denying issuance of residence permit but to impose administrative or criminal responsibility against the person. In several cases, there are signs of discrimination on the basis of origin and race of the citizens.
Although the Law envisages the possibility of appellation of denial to issue residence permit for an individual, it practically bears no prospect to do so in cases when denial is based on Article 18(1)(a) (a decision of an authorized body on the advisability of his/her residence in Georgia). This is so as the mentioned decision of an authorized body is not disclosed due to its content which is state secret. In addition, a substantial problem arises from the fact that such court proceedings may last for months and the foreigner’s legal documents to stay in Georgia expire in the meantime. Consequently, although the denial is appealed, the foreign citizen has to leave the country.
Transparency International – Georgia held a meeting with foreigners affected by the new migration regulations on 10 October. Up to 100 foreigners were present at the meeting who experience various problems caused by the new norms. We here present several examples which are almost identical in other cases too.
Georgian citizens who have mixed families face several problems. According to one of the participants at the meeting (Georgian citizen), his spouse and two children (one child – one month old, and the second – two years old) who are citizens of Russian Federation arrived in Georgia after September 1. They intend to live in Georgia. However, for their stay to be in compliance with the law, they have to obtain residence permits which require long-term immigration visas. Obtaining such visas is only possible in Moscow. Visiting Moscow is not possible for them due to the age of their children and financial problems the family is facing. The State Service Agency advised them that without residence permits they would be deported.
A female citizen of the Russian Federation who has a Georgia husband and children reported a similar problem. She has also been denied a residence permit for unclear reasons. In order to obtain a long-term visa and reapply for residence permit, she’d have to return to Moscow where she has no friends or relatives.
Professor Karine Torosyan, citizen of Armenia, who lives in Georgia since 2006 with her spouse and 7-months-old child and who works at International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University (ISET) was denied the issuance of residence permit. Her spouse, who is a citizen of Italy, obtained residence permit. Mrs. Torosyan filed her application for residence permit together with other foreign faculty members of ISET and she was the only one with a no. The grounds for the denial was Article 18(1)(a) - a decision of an authorized body on the advisability of his/her residence in Georgia.
Georgian universities where foreign students pursue their studies have experienced acute problems. Majority of the students have been studying in Georgia for several years and often the universities had taken the obligation to ensure their legal stay in the country. For example, several Iraqi students who have been studying in Georgia for years stated that they cannot continue studies unless they return to Iraq to acquire long-term (study) visa. The diplomatic missions closest to Iraq are located in Turkey and Jordan. They would require Turkish or Jordanian visa to reach these points. Considering the fact that visa application takes 30 days, they would have to either live in these countries or enter them twice. They would also miss several months of study.
According to students, even after acquiring the visa, they now face problems regarding residence permits. An Iraqi student, 38, recalled that he was intending to obtain residence permits for his spouse and 5 underage children who were visiting for 4 months. The Agency asked for renewal of his own residence permit as well if he wanted obtain residence permits for the family despite the fact that at that point he had already obtained one year-long residence permit. After submitting necessary documents, he received a response from the Agency explaining that his spouse and 4 children obtained one-year residence permit, one child a five-year residence permit, while the student himself was denied the renewal. The decision of the Agency directly contradicts the internationally recognized principle of inviolability of family.
Foreigners wishing to invest in Georgia also face significant problems. We were approached by South African farmers who were invited by the previous authorities and were also promised to be granted Georgian citizenship through a simplified procedure. They state that this promise has not be fulfilled and, instead, bureaucratic barriers prevent them obtain residence permits in a timely manner. They are also having complaints regarding registration of agricultural land, despite the decision of the Constitutional Court of Georgia overturning the moratorium on agricultural land sales to foreigners.
Mr. Stewart Nelson, a representative of the upcoming world-famous Hilton Hotel in Batumi told us about discrimination the company employees faced on the basis of their origin during the process of obtaining residence permit. Namely, as our respondent noted, among identical six applications, first applications approved were ones belonging to citizens of the Western Europe, and citizens of the Eastern Europe were denied the issuance of residence permits. After appealing and petitioning to relevant agencies, the latter decision regarding the three employees was overturned. However, Mr. Nelson indicated that these barriers significantly damaged the company.
At the meeting, participants pointed out the incompetent and contradictory advice provided by consulates. According to a citizen of the U.S., he faced significant difficulty to receive a response from the consulate of Georgia in the U.S.: they were not responding to his letters, and when they did, they gave incorrect instructions because an employee of the consulate mixed up the states of Washington and Washington D.C.
A citizen of France attending the meeting discussed about incompetent advices offered by the consulate of Georgia in France where they told him that obtaining a Georgian visa was still possible on the state border. This happened when the new regulations were already in force.
It is natural that a change of governments in a state may by followed by rethinking policies and modifying certain solutions. However, migration policy is a particularly sensitive issue for any state and any sharp change in policies must be preceded with detailed risk analysis. The importance of the issue is greater for Georgia which had been promoting its openness for investors and prioritizing development of tourism.
As we have seen, application of the new visa regime have damaged many, including those individuals who have been living in Georgia for years and had a legitimate reason to believe that they would not face difficulties in living, studying and working in Georgia.
The overview offered above, to our opinion, demonstrates that some of the new regulations impose unreasonable difficulties and often high costs to people who wish to come to Georgia for tourism, study, investment or immigration. The ill-planned and unreasonable procedures, bureaucratic barriers, inconsistent decisions and ambiguous regulations create the sense of instability. It seems that possible risks and challenges expected for such regulations were not thoroughly analyzed, which is affirmed by the statement of Roman Chkhenkeli, economic adviser of the Prime Minister, noting that the economic council of the Government of Georgia was not involved in the process of the immigration regulation reform. According to him, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Justice have been working on this matter whose leadership are not members in the economic council.
In the recent period, the problem reached such a scale that government representatives themselves also started making public remarks on the need to change the regulations. Irakli Garibashvili, the PM, apologized all the foreigners who faced problems due to the new immigration rules. Several days ago, Tea Tsulukiani, Minister of Justice, announced that the Government developed a seven-point plan to provide solutions for foreigners damaged by the new rules. We hope that the authorities will reconsider these regulations and will amend the norms which impose unreasonable restrictions to foreigners and which are not necessarily required for the welfare of the country.
We believe that the following recommendations should be taken into account in order to address the problems described above:
- The possibility of obtaining any type of visa in Georgia should be restored, so that foreigners legally residing in Georgia, having entered it without visa or with ordinary visa, may obtain migration visa here as it is required for residence permit;
- Filling out a visa application should be possible online and if the answer is positive, it should be issued on the state border. The requirement for an applicant to arrive at a diplomatic mission should be used only in exceptional cases;
- Article 18(1)(a) (a decision of an authorized body on the advisability of his/her residence in Georgia) should be removed from the grounds for denial of issuing temporary residence permit. This instead should be verified when granting visa;
- The timeframe required to make a decision on long-term visa, similar to ordinary visa, should be reduced (10 days, 30 days in exception circumstances), as well as deadline for issuing residence permit should be reduced to 10 days.
- For those foreign citizens, who live in the countries on the basis of residence permit whose citizens are exempted from visa requirement, should enjoy the same rules as citizens of those countries;
- Georgian foreign missions should provide services to visa applicants from countries other than the country where the mission is situated if the applicant is legally in that country;
- In addition to investments, permanent residence permit should be issued for those who purchase real estate worth 150000 GEL in Georgia;
- The Government must adopt the list of the countries whose citizens will have a different visa regime and be able to stay in Georgia for more than 90 days with an ordinary visa (EU member states, the U.S., Canada, Norway, Switzerland, holders of the compatriot document etc.)
Transparency International Georgia would like to thank Liberal Academy – Tbilisi for providing their opinions to us.