Last month, Mo’minjon, an Uzbek citizen, was traveling to Georgia with his German fiancé Ida when he was turned away at the border without explanation. His experience has reportedly been shared by dozens of other Central Asians.
Georgia is one of the most popular destinations for Central Asians – in 2022 alone, 8,000 Uzbek tourists visited this country. Last year, by July, Georgia welcomed over 500 tourists from Tajikistan (a 49.1 percent increase compared to the same period in 2021) and by August the country welcomed another 1,500 Kyrgyz visitors – up from 614 in the first nine months of 2021. Uzbek citizens, as well as other Central Asians, may enter Georgia visa free for up to a full year.
However, several recent incidents in which Central Asians were denied entry with no explanation have sparked concern on social media, leaving people worried about future trips.
On February 3, 2023, Mo’minjon Gulamov and Ida Lutzenberger took a Tashkent-Tbilisi flight. “For international couples, it is very difficult to get married, especially in Uzbekistan or Germany,” said Ida in an interview with The Diplomat. Georgia, on the other hand, “is very known as a country where it is easy to go and get married because you only need a passport.”
At passport control, however, Ida was let through, but Mo’minjon was set aside along with about three dozen other Central Asians for a “special process” – despite him showing hotel bookings, flight tickets, and a record of contacting people from a local marriage agency. After Mo’minjon started demanding an explanation from the border police officers, he and Ida, who was already on the other side of passport control, were brought first to a special room, and then to a plane. The couple received their passports back only after landing back in Tashkent.
The Georgian Embassy in Uzbekistan could not explain to Ida what had happened, noting that the border police are a subordinate state agency to Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The embassy did reportedly tell her that 27 people had been turned away altogether from that particular flight.
Initial reports about Georgian Border Police denying entry to female Uzbek citizens or having them go through “special control,” appeared in the 2010s. Back then, an unofficial explanation (or rather an assumption) was that these cases were linked to human trafficking and the sex industry. In the early 2000s, many young women from Uzbekistan became victims of human trafficking and were forced into prostitution in Georgia – one NGO reported “hundreds if not thousands” of sex workers working in the country.
In 2014, residents in Adjara, Georgia, sent a letter of complaint to the local authorities about sex workers from Central Asia and their clients – mostly from Turkey. “These Uzbek women roam around the village, they don’t care whether there are children nearby. Together with Turks, they have taken over Gonio, and possibly the whole of Batumi,” complained one Georgian to RFE/RL back then.
The U.S. Department of State’s 2022 report notes that traffickers still exploit women from Central Asia, especially Uzbek and Kyrgyz women, in the Adjara region, in its capital Batumi, as well as in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi in “saunas, brothels, bars, strip clubs, casinos, and hotels.” The numbers currently seem to be smaller, at least based on Uzbekistan’s official statements – the National Center for Human Rights of Uzbekistan reported 101 female victims of human trafficking being sexually exploited in 2020, and only 17 of those cases took place abroad. Yet local news media still cover substantial reports of attempts of sex trafficking young women abroad, largely to Turkey.
When I was living in Tbilisi in 2021, and invited my Uzbek friend who lived in Turkey, she was also stopped at the airport and was almost sent back. The border police let her into the country only after she showed them her other passport with visas to the U.K., U.S., and Europe.
Uzbek and Kyrgyz women are not the only ones suspected of being involved in the sex industry and frowned upon by Georgian border guards. In 2021, a woman from Turkmenistan tried to enter Georgia twice – both times she was turned away. She reportedly was a beneficiary of the “Remotely from Georgia” state program that allowed citizens of 95 countries to travel and work in Georgia. She had lived in the country before. In her second attempt to re-enter Georgia, she audio-recorded the conversation between herself and a border guard who indirectly called her a prostitute.
“No, I’m telling the truth,” the border guard said to the woman impudently. “The business you are doing in Turkey and Georgia is over, we are not idiots.”
Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that she was denied entry in accordance with Article 11 of the law “On the legal status of aliens and stateless persons” specifically under Paragraph 1(i) which references “other cases provided for by the legislation of Georgia.”
This speculation, however, does not explain why Central Asian men have also reportedly been under special scrutiny, and at times, are denied entry, too.
In August 2021, Anvarulla Mukhamedkhodjaev and his 11 friends were traveling to Georgia. They all were interrogated at the Tbilisi airport – both as a group and individually. The content of their mobile phones were examined, and their questions of “why?” were met with mockery by border police, who replied that “tomorrow the prime minister will make a statement on television and explain everything to you.” Four people from his group and another seven people from the same flight were sent back to Uzbekistan.
Only one box was checked in the document Anvarullo received regarding his denial of entry – “Other cases envisioned by Georgian legislation” – with no substantial clarity on the reason he was denied entry. The Diplomat has viewed copies of the form.
Anvarullo told The Diplomat that because of “exhaustion” and “depression,” he and his friends did not seek further explanation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan or the Embassy of Georgia in Uzbekistan. But when he took his grievance to social media, others started sharing their own stories. “A similar situation happened to me in the summer of 2018,” wrote one social media user. “I flew to Batumi from St. Petersburg for a congress. There were an invitation, a return ticket, [and] a booked room. Just for no reason [they] sent [me] back with the same plane.”
“We knew, of course, about the risk,” Ida told The Diplomat, referring to Mo’minjon’s previous experience and difficulty at the Georgian border. Last year, Mo’minjon tried to visit Georgia from Turkey, crossing the land border. He and a Kyrgyz man were sent back to Turkey immediately with a paper that gave the same reason – “other.”
“I didn’t know who this Kyrgyz guy was,” Mo’minjon told The Diplomat. “I just met him there. And he said he was attempting to cross into Georgia for the second time… he said they never allow Uzbeks or Kyrgyz or Tajiks into Georgia.”
One speculated motivation is related to Georgia’s efforts to build a “closer relationship with the EU,” which included reforming the country’s migration policy. Before the early 2010s, visitors enjoyed Georgia’s liberal migration policies. Later, however, according to the EU-Georgia Readmission Agreement, Georgia takes responsibility to readmit all third-country nationals or stateless persons illegally residing in the territory of the EU if those hold “a valid visa or residence permit issued by Georgia” or moved to the EU only after “having stayed on, or transited through, the territory of Georgia.” While this could be a reason for Tbilisi to develop a stricter migration policy that blends well with EU standards, it does not justify unpredictable passport control outcomes and the unanswered questions of people turned away from the border.
Nikolay Levshits, who runs a telegram channel about Georgia (the most popular one in the Russian language, with almost 100,000 followers), has reported receiving dozens of messages every month from people – Russians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Armenians, and Ukrainians – who were turned away from the Georgian border or airports. Those are “not only anti-Putin activists and journalists … but ordinary people, many of whom have lived in Georgia for more than one month.”
What is exasperating the most to those who have faced entry denial at the Georgian border and spoken to The Diplomat about their experiences seems to be the attitude of the border police. Alibekov, who gave only his surname to The Diplomat, is a Kazakh student in Moscow, Russia. He flew to Vladikavkaz first and, on February 18, 2023, took a taxi to Tbilisi where his friend lives. At the border, he was given the same document as Mo’minjon by a border police officer who did not provide his name. “They [border police] take a photo on their mobile phones,” says Alibekov. “They take a picture of you and your passport only. I asked them ‘why?’ and they were like ‘well, it’s needed.’ A very rude nation – they don’t talk and they don’t explain.”
While the specific reasons some Central Asians are turned away at the Georgian border is unclear, profiling might also be a part of the explanation. Mo’minjon recalls two Uzbek women from his flight who were friends planning to vacation together in Georgia. “One of them was white [lighter skinned] and very fancy … and the other one looked our color, Uzbek color,” explained Mo’minjon, referring to his own slightly darker skin. “So, they let the whitish woman enter and they rejected the other one.”
The Diplomat asked for clarification from the Georgian Border Police, who directed us to the the Ministry of Internal Affairs and its Patrol Police Department. As of publication, we have not received a response.
“I was very disappointed with Georgia,” said Anvarullo, frustrated by the rude and defiant attitude of the border police he’d encountered. “I brought my friends to Georgia, I brought 12 people as tourists to Georgia, as clients to them… May God will it, I will not visit Georgia [again].”
The author thanks Alon Schneidman for his support and initial discussion on the topic.