Iranians are one of the largest groups of immigrants in Georgia, but have come under increasing pressure in their new home.
Ali had not been home to Iran for over three years. But in early January, when he decided to leave the restaurant he runs in Tbilisi and go visit his family in Tehran, he couldn’t have known what was to come.
Ali has lived in Georgia for several years – one of thousands of Iranian expats here – and has been hesitant to go home for safety reasons. Ten years ago, as a student in the city of Hamadan, he participated in the massive anti-government protests in Iran that became known as the Green Movement. The protests ultimately were put down and participants continue to face legal trouble. “I have had an open court case pending since then,” Ali told Eurasianet. (Names and other identifying elements in this story have been changed for the interviewees’ safety.)
Geographic proximity and relaxed travel regulations have made the South Caucasus an attractive destination for Iranians to live and visit. Hundreds of thousands come every year as tourists to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia; thousands to do business and hundreds as refugees.
It’s particularly attractive for Iranian emigres critical of their government, as they can stay out of reach of the authorities but still in touch with their families. “There are only 40 countries that let us in without visas. Georgia is one of them,” said Saman, another Tbilisi-based Iranian.
Saman’s job in Tbilisi has put him at odds with the Iranian authorities and he can no longer go home. His family, however, can visit him in Georgia.
“My mom, my sister and my brother have come here to see me, but my dad is too old to travel,” Saman said. “It’s something that haunts me. Every time my mother, my sister or my brother call, I fear it’s the call that is going to tell me that my dad is gone.”
Immigration from Iran to Georgia has been sharply increasing: Since 2012 the net number of Iranian immigrants in Georgia has increased more than tenfold, reaching 3,413 in 2018, the last year for which statistics are available. The same year, Iranians made up the largest group of foreign nationals getting temporary residence permits: 5,346, or 87 percent of the total.
But as immigration has increased, Georgia has tightened the screws on arrivals from Iran.
A growing number of Iranians have been denied entry and residence permits over the last two years, victims of anti-immigration domestic politics in Georgia, attempts to crack down on transit migration, and security concerns.
And many temporary residence permit-holders, like Ali, are concerned that their permits will not be extended.