Author: Timothy Blauvelt, Full Professor, Ilia State University
When the current COVID-19 pandemic began early this spring, many countries closed their borders and restricted entry to foreigners. In nearly all such cases, legal residents are treated as citizens for purposes of entry, allowed to return to their country of residence. While a model of success for its early and proactive measures to contain the spread of the virus, Georgia has not followed the international standard with regard to its legal residents. According to Decree no. 164, only Georgian citizens and their family members (defined as spouses and under-aged children) are allowed to enter the country, as well as certain foreigners in diplomatic, humanitarian, and cargo transportation functions.
According to the formal definition of residency in Georgia, holders are afforded two rights during the period of validity of their permits: the right to enter and transit Georgia, and the right to remain in Georgia. By simply omitting mention of residents in the category of those allowed to return, Decree no. 164 effectively negates the first of those two rights, without amending or changing the underlying legislation defining residency. Lest one think that this is merely a “foreigner” or an “entitled expat” problem, the exclusion of residents also affects many native-born Georgians who for whatever reason currently hold residency but not citizenship: parents, siblings, adult children and other relatives are not considered “close family members” for purposes of entry under the decree.
According to the recent bilateral agreements on travel with some EU states, Georgia recognizes the international standard that residency should be treated the same as citizenship for the purposes of entry, but only as concerns other countries. Currently, legal residents (not just citizens) of a number of EU states may enter Georgia with a quarantine at their own expense, and residents of the five EU so-called “safe countries” (Germany, France and the three Baltic countries) may enter Georgia without quarantine, while legal residents of Georgia are not allowed to enter Georgia. This means that the residency permits issued by EU states have more legal standing on Georgian soil than residency permits issued by Georgia itself. This is problematic from the standpoint of sovereignty, and also from that of legal consistency. One definition of residency holds for EU residents, while a different one applies to residents of Georgia within Georgia.
Georgia has recently launched a “Business Invitation” application as well as a much-publicized program to attract new foreign freelance workers. Some have suggested that this Business application offers a sufficient “window” for legal residents to return, a mere bureaucratic inconvenience. Some residents have indeed returned through this process, but others have been denied without explanation. In addition to being complicated (one must choose from an array government agencies as “issuing authorities” with little instruction about who should apply to which), the process requires an organizational sponsor in Georgia willing to provide an invitation letter guaranteeing payment for quarantining and any other costs related to that person upon entry. Most organizations would be understandably hesitant to provide such guarantees and to take on such responsibility for anybody who is not a direct employee. What is more, there is no indication that residency status plays any role in the approval decision. Thus the business entry application may be a minor bureaucratic inconvenience for some, but a significant hurdle for others. Some legal residents may not qualify to apply for it at all.
The exclusion of legal residence from the category of those allowed entry into Georgia during the pandemic may have been an oversight at first, during the chaotic days when the regulations went into effect in March. Yet the issue has been brought to the attention of the relevant officials (some of whom were reportedly surprised to learn about it), and six months later there has been no change or explanation. Excluding residents is official policy. Some have suggested that the reasoning behind this may be concern that there are many Georgian residency holders in Russia, Ukraine and Iran, and that the return of large numbers of such individuals to Georgia could be risky, either epidemiologically or politically. Yet the Georgian government has demonstrated to the world that it has the competence and capacity to proactively and efficiently facilitate the return of vast numbers of citizens. The mechanisms are clearly in place to easily handle the entry and quarantine (even at their own expense, if necessary) of whatever legal residents who at this point would want to return, even given the recent increases in COVID case numbers and the reintroduction of certain restrictions.
Many foreigners gain residency in Georgia, a complicated and expensive process, because they are personally invested in the country, sometimes emotionally, but also financially, through investments and property ownership. It can hardly be encouraging for future investment if foreign investors can be cut off from access to their investments and property by decree and at the first sign of danger. Nobody is asking for special treatment or special privileges, or suggesting frivolous international travel during a crisis. Merely that Georgia respects its own legal definition of residency and observes the international convention that residents should be able to enter their country of residency without undue additional hurdles. Georgia is making itself an exception to this standard with no clear explanation as to why it is doing so. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this issue is indicative of whether Georgia considers its legal, law-abiding and tax-paying immigrants and other residents to be worthwhile members of society.