Issue 5, 2019. October-November

   

CIRCULAR MIGRATION: FUELING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND ADDRESSING UNEMPLOYMENT IN GEORGIA

The European labor market is attractive to Georgians, but Europe is wary of mass migration. The answer could be circular migration: a system by which workers are allowed to travel to work in a host country for given periods of time, before coming back to Georgia for a while and then 'circling' out again later on another short-term contract.


At the Batumi International Conference this summer, President Salome Zurabishvili highlighted the potential benefits of 'circular migration' for both the EU and Georgia, explaining that such an approach to the issue of migration would be consistent with Georgia's European heritage and integration with EU.

She also encouraged "closer human links" between the countries with the motto: "More Georgia in Europe, more Europe in Georgia", and noted circular migration agreements could benefit both countries.

For Georgia, circular migration can help address unemployment and fuel professional development in the country as well, while the EU stands to benefit by filling in the labor gaps in important sectors left by population decline.

To date, France is the only EU state with which Georgia has a full-fledged circular migration scheme, however Georgia is working in cooperation with Israel, Austria, Romania, Greece, Poland, Germany and Bulgaria to develop functional circular migration schemes.

Directing the development of skilled labour through circular migration

Even as the economy expands, Georgia remains a country of net emigration.

A 2017 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows high levels of unemployment and structural labour market problems are the most significant forces behind Georgian emigration, with the majority of illegal migrant workers citing home unemployment as the reason for their move.

Though unemployment is on the way down in Georgia, the economy is still experiencing trouble meeting demands for highly-qualified professionals.

One important field where labour supply and demand mismatching remains an issue is engineering.

Kote Cheishvili, an engineer at joint Israeli-Georgian aircraft parts plant Aerostructure Technologies Cyclone (ATC), claims that at present there is "no collaboration between the industry [of engineering] and universities."

It is for exactly this reason that Cheishvili chose to complete his undergraduate and Masters degrees in the Netherlands and Germany.

"In Georgia there's nowhere to get experience," says Cheishvili. "In the universities they learn theoretical stuff, different from what's currently required. There simply aren't internships or research studies in the field."

Cheishvili predicts that in the future there will be more engineering companies in Georgia available to offer internships to students. Until that happens, however, Georgian engineering students will be less employable.

However, a system that would allow them to develop their skills abroad could provide a cadre of professionals that could later return and build up the base of the industry.

Though such plans would initially entail a loss of expertise, circular migration schemes would ultimately be rewarding for Georgia, says Executive Director of the EU-Georgia Business Council Giorgi Kacharava.

The EU only stands to win from such agreements, Kacharava asserts.

"The fact is all EU countries have a lack of skilled labour-all EU countries. Georgian workers can fill these gaps."

Bolstering the strength of the EU-visa free deal

Further incentive to push forward circular migration schemes are concerns that the EU-Georgia visa-free deal has given rise to a concerning pattern of Georgians claiming asylum in the EU as a means of extending their stay - Georgia ranks 10th among asylum seekers in the EU, and third in the same list in a number of other countries, including France.

Some fear the visa free travel deal, called "the main achievement of Georgia" by French Interior Minister Christope Castaner, today is under threat:

"If we don't work on this, tomorrow Georgia's free access to Europe may be restricted," Castaner warned during a visit to Georgia in May.

The Georgian government has since been working in cooperation with the EU to prevent unnecessary claims to asylum, implementing measures against the change of surnames and citizen support for illegal stays abroad.

Many EU countries, meanwhile, have added Georgia to safe country lists, making Georgians ineligible for asylum.

This has led to a dramatic reduction in asylum claims: in Germany, one of the most popular destinations for Georgian immigrants, asylum seekers were down 20 percent in between January and July 2019 in comparison to the year before.

Implementing circular migration schemes can further remedy the problem.

Labor migration from Georgia to the EU is driven primarily by unemployment. The Rondeli Foundation reports that every year, 3-4,000 Georgians try to stay in the EU in pursuit of undocumented employment.

A significant reduction of illegal immigration from Georgia into the EU will thus depend on increased employment opportunities at home. While the Georgian economy can't provide these opportunities overnight, Europe's can:

"Circular migration is our top priority as an answer [to illegal migration]," said President Salome Zurabishvili back at the Batumi International Conference. "Now we are working on initial agreements with our European partners in order to develop a qualified professional workforce ."

However, Zurabishvili did emphasize that Georgia "will need Europe's support and facilitation" in the development of circular migration schemes.

One crucial element of needed support is a system for matching potential Georgian laborers with the appropriate EU markets.

In 2018, the State Commission for Migration Issues of Georgia released a study assessing the demand for labor in the EU and Georgia's potential to supply specialists.

While some EU member states have also released lists of in-demand professions, the pieces have yet to be put into place.

Looking at Georgia's study next to the available lists, Georgia's labour supply best fits with Austria, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Sweden, where there are labour demands in the hospitality, medical and construction sectors.

This is why the EU Georgia Business Council calls for the cooperation of the business sector, NGOs, and governments in order to better direct the flow of migrants toward in-demand sectors.

"It's important to make a database as comprehensive as possible for Georgian citizens so that they can be familiarized with available jobs and their requirements," says Kacharava.

This in turn would lead to less illegal stays and costly deportations.

Informal circular migration: redirecting migration flows into circular migration schemes

One of the biggest issues is that under the current system, many Georgians traveling to the EU are unfamiliar with the requirements for residency and work in their destination country.

Such was the case with Nino Khundadze. Educated in architecture but in search of better opportunities, Khundadze followed her boyfriend with her infant son to Europe in 2009. At the border they were granted just a seven day visa.

"We didn't know what we were going to do, how we were going to fill out the documents with this seven day visa. My boyfriend told me we were going to apply for asylum - I didn't even know what that meant."

During her three years in Germany, Khundadze was hired twice - once by an architecture firm and the second time as a visual design artist for Footlocker. Both employers tried helping Khundadze to get residency documents; both times they failed.

Germany requires migrants to apply for residency and work permits from their home embassy.

Meanwhile, without the occupational matching of circular migration schemes, Georgians tend to rely on unofficial channels to secure jobs in the EU - most of whom aren't cheap. Some migrants reported spending $1,500 to $5,000 for these services, though the ILO convention on Private Employment Agencies forbids intermediaries from collecting fees from migrant workers.

These private employment agencies, which remain the main intermediaries between local job seekers in Georgia and employers in the EU, are known to misrepresent employment opportunities, salaries, and rights to migrant workers for their own gain.

In this area, Kacharava says more government oversight would be helpful:

"I think the most important issue is to monitor those companies that are offering Georgian citizens work to EU countries because we know of examples in Ukraine where they were cheating citizens - collecting 100 applications and getting fees for this. But in reality, the factory was only employing some twenty people.

"It's very important to inform Georgian citizens of these dangers. Too many are traveling to the EU and finding on the spot that there is no job," Kacharava says.

Another issue is that private intermediaries have kept the Georgian government out of the loop. Though the Law on Labour Migration of 2015 requires the exchange of information, current data on the number of employment agencies and Georgian migrants abroad is unavailable, making the development of strategic circular migration schemes more difficult.

The Georgian government, however, is working to change this.

This past year, a new division was created within the Ministry of Labour to compete with private employment agencies and oversee the planning and implementation of future circular migration schemes.

Through a close rapport with the private sector in the EU and Georgia, this division will play a re-invigorated role in the regular monitoring of trends in the EU labour market and the Georgian workforce.

Coming full circle - reintegration

Though Georgia stands to benefit from the skills development of migrant workers in the EU, the reintegration and return of those who leave is crucial to the development of the Georgian economy.

Unlike the major origin countries of other EU migrants, Georgia is itself affected by a declining population, meaning the effects of migration are more pronounced than other third countries of origin.

"Here in Georgia there is a huge demand for skilled labour, however salaries might not be so attractive to returning migrants. This is why we must develop incentives for them to return home", Kacharava noted, adding that as it stands, the return and reintegration prospects for professionals in demand on the Georgian labour market are not always clear, and more could be done to assist returnees in the reintegration process.

Though the circular migration of the skilled workforce does bare the risk of exacerbating labour shortages, the statistics show that this risk is minimal.

Unlike the origin countries of other migrants to the EU, Georgia is naturally in line with circular migration schemes. The 2017 Barometer survey shows that only eight percent of Georgia's population are interested in permanent emigration from the country. Most return, not for legal status issues, but for personal and family reasons.

Others just simply miss home

Cheishvili was studying and working in Germany when he finally got the "lucky" call from ATC, an aircraft composites factory in Tbilisi, where he works now. Though the wages would be lower than in Germany, Cheishvili immediately accepted: "It's my home and I belong here."

Cheishvili's take is shared by many returned migrants to Georgia, who are putting their skills to good work at home.

According to an OECD study, returned Georgian migrants are likely to invest, start their own business, or become self-employed upon return to their home country.

Data from the Mobility Centers project supports these findings. In 2016, the most in demand service among returning migrants was business development consultation.

Though Zurabishvili's vision for circular migration begins with "more Georgians in Europe," the end goal is indeed more Georgians working in Georgia.

"I always told people my stay was temporary - until an opportunity would open up in Georgia," says Cheishvili. "Here I feel I can make a change and do something important."

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