Why Georgian "pilgrims" were not allowed into the Holy Land

Why Georgian "pilgrims" were not allowed into the Holy Land

A few days ago, for the first time after the introduction of a visa-free regime with Georgia in 2013, the Israeli authorities had to take strict actions against illegal migration – 26 Georgian citizens, who arrived in Tel Aviv on a religious tourism program, were detained by border guards and police at the airport. They were not allowed to cross the border and were sent back to Georgia 24 hours later. Moreover, according to the detainees, they were not just transferred to a special detention facility of the airport, but were also treated very rudely, and even "inhumanely" in some cases.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry informed that it will examine this incident "if citizens file a formal complaint." In diplomatic language this phrase means: "We did not receive a fully-fledged complaint, and if we do, it absolutely must be justified, so that the Tbilisi authorities can raise this issue at the level of interstate relations with a Middle Eastern country that is small in territory and population, but very influential, with which Georgia has traditionally maintained friendly, partnership relations."

Apparently, the Foreign Ministry took into account that this is not the first incident (though not many people were detained before) and that the Israeli side has its arguments. And, of course, they are not related to the threat of terrorism from Georgian natives. But they are backed by the simple statistics of Israeli migration institutions – too many Georgians are trying to take advantage of the visa-free arrangements in order to find jobs in Israel. The level of unemployment in Georgia is reaching 40%. It is even higher in some regions. But the visa-free regime was introduced only for tourists who go to Israel for a short time to holiday or for pilgrimage.

The visa-free regime for Georgian citizens was introduced several years ago as a result of difficult negotiations between Tbilisi and Tel Aviv on the issue of a visa-free regime between Georgia and Iran. But it happened during the period when strict international sanctions against Tehran were still in force. At that time, Georgia still cancelled its visa-free regime with Iran, but of course none of the participants of this process admitted and will never admit the connection between these two decisions.

In any case, Israel has introduced a visa-free regime for tourists from Georgia, not for migrant workers that try to hide behind religious motives. Religious pilgrims from Georgia also travel to the Holy Land, but under the auspices of the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In this particular case, a group of "pilgrims" was sent to Israel by a small travel company, which even journalists had difficulty finding in Tbilisi.

26 Georgian citizens returned to their homeland a day later. They were alive and well, but tired. Although this situation is especially bad for those who actually visited Israel for pilgrimage, who wanted to light a candle in Jerusalem's Jvari Monastery, to see fresco of great medieval poet Shota Rustaveli. But this is the "unfortunate cost" of the visa-free regime between countries with disparate levels of economic development. It could get even worse when the EU fulfills its promise and introduces a visa-free regime for Georgian citizens. The incident at Tel Aviv airport will look like a slight misunderstanding.

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