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Georgia’s Migration Numbers Remain a Guessing Game

Applying for visas for study, work and business, Georgians stand in line at the Russian embassy in Tbilisi. (Photo: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty)

A lack of reliable data on Georgian migration trends could have a wide-ranging impact on Tbilisi’s ability to adapt government policies to changing population patterns, demographic and migration specialists say.

Currently, Georgia’s official migration statistics are based solely on the annual border traffic numbers collected by border police -- a figure that does not distinguish between the various reasons for travel. Officially, fewer than 200,000 Georgians – roughly 4.5 percent of the country’s population of 4.4 million -- live abroad. But independent demographers believe that the real number is much higher; with estimates ranging from 300,000 to over a million.

Without a clear sense of how many Georgians live abroad, questions exist about the true size of Georgia’s population, a number that impacts everything from voting lists to tax collection, commented Nino Tchkoidze, a national program officer for the International Organization for Migration in Tbilisi. “[S]tatistics give you a better understanding of what you control, what you run, how you run [it] and so on,” Tchkoidze said.

Relying on the number of border crossings for that information yields better data about people coming into a country rather than those moving out, elaborated Pablo Lattes, a population affairs officer at the Population Division of the United Nations Secretariat in New York. “[Y]ou want to measure the outflows because maybe the outflows of Georgians living abroad are significant in terms of remittances and the money or what the connection to the nationals living abroad and the people still living in the country,” Lattes said.

Measuring emigration, however, is more difficult because people leaving a country are “less motivated to report,” he continued. No one international standard for calculating migration statistics exists.

Remittances currently account for “about 7 percent” of Georgia’s Gross Domestic Product, and are an “important component financing [the] trade deficit and stimulating aggregate demand,” said Giorgi Barbakadze, head of the National Bank of Georgia’s Macroeconomic and Statistics Department. The number is taken from an annual household survey performed by GeoStat, the official statistics agency, he said. Based on data for 2008, the date of the latest survey, that means annual remittances of over 1.3 million lari or about $724, 572. Wire transfers, which do not distinguish remittances from other transfers, amounted to $81 million as of July 2010. Russia, a top destination for Georgian labor migrants, accounted for roughly 60 percent -- $48.3 million -- of those transfers.

The Georgian government appears aware of the economic muscle Georgian labor migrants or diaspora members can wield. Officials have frequently repeated the need to encourage diaspora members to return and invest in Georgia's economy.

Nonetheless, a representative of the State Ministry of Georgia on Diaspora Issues told EurasiaNet.org that the ministry does not use statistics for keeping track of how many Georgians now live abroad or where. In an email interview with EurasiaNet.org, Gvantsa Tukhashvili, a “leading specialist” at the ministry, wrote that the Diaspora Ministry “does not need statistics” because it instead uses “private contacts” with migrants abroad.

Tukashvili underlined the Georgian Diaspora’s importance for the government “because we can get more investments [from] them,” but added that, while statistics are "important . . . in this case they are not useful."

The annual migration data that GeoStat receives from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) is limited to a chart that indicates the number of people – divided between Georgians and foreigners – who have come into Georgia and the number who have left.

GeoStat Director Zaza Chelidze complains that the information is not sufficiently detailed to let GeoStat know how long Georgians are staying abroad. The agency lacks the resources to supply additional data, he continued.

“We don’t have the resources to count all the people at the border, to ask them how long they are going abroad,” Chelidze said. “If we do it, it doesn’t help because … usually the Georgian immigrants going abroad has [sic] short term visas, but they stay [for a] long time.”

Irina Badurashvili, the director of the Georgian Centre of Population Research, termed the MIA data “not exact, but it is at least a source of information about migration.”

Shota Utiashvili, head of the MIA’s information analytics department, commented that concerns about the data are “unfounded.”

A planned commission, made up of representatives from the MIA, GeoStat, the Civil Registry Agency (CRA) and other government bodies involved in migration data collection, has promised better data management, but little information yet exists about how the new system will work.

A united data processing system will give the government the information needed “to fully reflect” how many Georgians are leaving the country, Deputy Justice Minister Giorgi Vashadze, who heads the Civil Registry Agency, was quoted in a June 10 CRA press release as saying. Demographers and migration specialists will welcome any clarification the system provides. “If some of your demographic indicators are not real, “ commented Badurashvili, “you cannot implement good policy."

Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

Georgia’s Migration Numbers Remain a Guessing Game

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