Lamara, a 60-year-old Georgian grandmother, put on khaki shorts, tennis shoes and oversized, knock-off Gucci sunglasses. A borrowed I-Heart-NY T-shirt and navy-blue US coast guard cap completed her look. “The guards have to think that I am a tourist,” she explained, in reference to any border patrol she might encounter while hiking from Turkey into Greece.
Lamara was on the hunt for a job and, like many other illegal labor migrants, she was headed for the European Union. Georgia’s ongoing economic malaise drives the trend. Official unemployment in Georgia stood at 16.9 percent of the country’s “economically active” population of roughly 2 million people in 2009, but unofficial estimates range much higher.
No comprehensive data on illegal migration is available from Georgia, but indirect statistics such as requests for asylum offer a sneak peek into migration patterns.
Georgia had the highest number of asylum-seekers from the South Caucasus in 2009, according to the United Nations Development Programme: 4,100 requests compared with 4,000 for Armenia and 1,900 for Azerbaijan.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports still higher figures – 4,700 asylum applications -- for 2010. That number represents far less than one percent of Georgia’s official 2010 population of 4.4 million, but “is still relatively high given the size of [the] country’s population,” said Marc Hulst, program coordinator at the International Organization for Migration (IMO) in Tbilisi.
France proved the most popular destination for Georgian nationals, with upwards of 960 applications, according to UNHCR. Greece and Poland followed, with some 700 and 560 submissions, respectively.
Asylum data, however, fails to provide the full picture, Hulst cautioned. It may include repeat requests for asylum and does not show how many people stayed abroad regardless of the response to their asylum request.
One illegal Georgian migrant who would not have surfaced in the UN’s asylum data is 23-year-old Davit, a resident of a Tbilisi suburb. Davit was granted asylum in France in 2008 on what he acknowledges was a fabricated tale of political persecution, but was deported a year later after he was caught shop-lifting in Paris.
Now he regales his peers with tales from France, showing off his treasure trove of goods stolen from Paris stores. “This is real Prada … not the fake Turkish stuff that you guys wear around here,” Davit boasted, indicating his shoes and jeans.
Davit was among 2,461 Georgians reported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs as deported back to Georgia in 2009. To reach France, he claims he traveled for two weeks via plane and train from one country to another, walking through forests and fording a river.
The trip, Davit says, was well worth it. “They paid me an allowance and gave me housing while I was there,” Davit recounted, referring to the French government benefits. “Then I got a free ride back … It was an ‘all-included’ travel package.”
He tried to smuggle himself into France again this November, but was detained in Belarus, whose location next to EU members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland makes it a popular transit point for EU-bound Georgian migrants. This time, he was sent home with no money and a bruise under his eye, allegedly provided by a Belarusian police officer.
But it is Turkey -- which has visa-free relations with Georgia -- that has emerged as the main overland gateway for Georgian migrants, said the IMO’s Hulst.
Migrant Lamara’s itinerary included a three-day trip by bus from Tbilisi to an unspecified location west of Istanbul. There, an underground courier service corralled groups of illegal immigrants from various countries, including Turkey, and herded them across the border to Greece, a two-day mountain hike.
The guides who would smuggle Lamara and her 34-year-old daughter into Greece instructed them to keep their baggage light. There would be no waiting for stragglers. Lamara packed only a change of clothes, a chocolate bar, three lemons, and a bottle of water into her backpack for her five-day trip to Greece from Georgia. She depended on the guides for food.
Lamara, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, eventually made it to Athens and got a job as a live-in caretaker for an elderly Greek woman. Her employer provides food and pays her 600 euros (about $794) per month; from that sum, Lamara pays 500 euros (about $662) to the couriers each month. The group will hold on to her passport until she pays off the total cost of her trip to Greece – some 5,000 euros (about $6,619).
As do most other illegal migrants, Lamara, the only provider for a family of seven, will be sending money home once she pays off the debt. In 2008, expatriate Georgians sent home some $11 million (19.5 million lari) per month, on average, according to the National Statistics Agency. By comparison, Georgia’s annual national revenue for that year stood at roughly 4.3 billion lari (some $2.44 billion at the current exchange rate).
Lamara’s plan is to stay and work in Athens for six years to save money for an apartment in Tbilisi.
A new agreement between the EU and Georgia, though, may somewhat restrain the flow of illegal migrants like Davit and Lamara.
In parallel with looser visa regulations for Georgians traveling to the European Union, the European Parliament on December 14 approved a document intended to streamline “procedures for readmitting Georgians expelled from the EU, as well as third country migrants who arrived in the EU from Georgia,” said Keti Khutsishvili, a project manager at the European Union Delegation in Georgia. The EU will also finance programs to help the Georgian government “identify and reaccept its unauthorized nationals abroad,” she added.
Doubts persist about whether the agreement will make a significant difference. The IMO’s Hulst says that many Georgian migrants are surprisingly knowledgeable about weak spots in EU borders and legal loopholes in migration laws. "If there is a weak spot somewhere, they will find it," he said.
Barring a healthier local job market, the EU Delegation’s Khutsishvili believes that a sweeping public awareness campaign about the dangers of illegal migration must be carried out to stem the flow. Public service announcements on TV mostly focus on human trafficking, rather than illegal migration. "The campaign must bring home to people in every small village in Georgia that they will not necessarily get lots of money and a good life abroad, while there are other domestic employment opportunities they may not be aware of," she said.
Government representatives could not be reached for comment.
This story was amended on 12/21/10 to correct the figure for Georgia's 2008 national revenue.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.