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09 Mar 2018

Georgia’s visa liberalization with European Union comes under threat

Georgia to take new measures to prevent loss of Schengen visa-free regimeOne year after celebrating the launch of the much-sought-after visa liberalization, the Georgian government is planning to take new measures in order to stop the growth of the number of Georgian asylum seekers in the Schengen countries.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who had called visa liberalization an “enormous achievement” at the time, said during a meeting of the European Union interior ministers, on March 8 in Brussels, that Tbilisi is ready to take more action and introduce new measures in order to preserve the visa-free regime with the Schengen Area.

The European Council President Donald Tusk highly assessed “the commitment of the Georgian authorities to continue working with EU member states to make sure that [the visa-free regime] will function properly.”

The EU Home Affairs Council, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, also welcomed the commitment of the Georgian government to take all the necessary steps to decrease the number of asylum seekers, though he called the current number of people seeking asylum in Schengen Countries “worrisome”. He also said that the EU member countries would discuss the consequences that Georgia will have to face, if the situation doesn’t change.

This is not the first time that the possibility of suspending Georgia  from the visa-free regime scheme has been raised as an issue. Earlier in January, the correspondent of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Strasbourg, Rikard Jozwiak, wrote on Twitter that EU member states are worried about the number of asylum seekers from Georgia.

“EU member states are actually more worried about asylum seekers from #Georgia. The suspension mechanism will be debated by diplomats on Tue.” he had written on Twitter.

The claim had raised a lot of concerns among Georgian politicians and citizens, though the Head of Georgian Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Natalie Sabanadze, had immediately reacted denying the claims of Jozwiak, and insisting that the statistics show that the number of asylum seekers from Georgia is low.

However, according to the statistics of the Georgian Ministry of Affairs, the number of Georgians traveling towards the Schengen Zone countries has reached 220 thousand. In countries like Norway and Switzerland the number has grown so fast that it became three times bigger within the year. The number of refusals of entry and illegal overstay in Schengen area has also increased slightly. In Sweden, Georgians have constituted the highest group of asylum seekers so far this year, aside of Syrians.

Since the declaration of independence in the early 1990s, Georgia has lost 1/3 of its population as a result of the ongoing mass exodus.

The problem becomes even complicated since among asylum seekers there are Georgians with criminal records, committed within the Schengen member countries and ties to the mafia. Despite the fact that Georgia successfully cracked down on organized crime mafia in 2003, now this group is largely operating in exile. The visa free regime has made it even easier for it to recruit people from their homeland.

The Georgian government has been on an ongoing struggle to lower the number of people fleeing the country. Lately it has drafted Regulations in order to curb the illegal migration. Among the measures taken in this regard, it is also the tightening of the procedures for changing last name.

The changing of last name has become a widespread problem in Georgia, since people who were sent back home after committing crimes in Europe, are using this right to take new identities and reach for the European Union countries again. The respective amendments bill, endorsed by the Government on March 6, restricts the right to change surnames to only one time, excluding the cases when one changes his or her surname as a result of marriage, divorce, child adoption or paternity determination.

According to the visa liberalization suspension mechanism of the European Union, a delaying of the visa-waiver deal for nine months might be applied if a certain country violates the agreement.

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