Poverty and emigration take their toll on Moldova's future

Tue, Oct 23, 2012, 01:00

MOLDOVA LETTER:THE TWO dozen teenagers in the hall of a state boarding school in Orhei, a dusty town in central Moldova, throw up their hands in agreement on one thing: they all want to live and work in their homeland if they can.

But how many actually believe they will stay in Moldova? Less than half raise their hands.

The rest expect to join at least 600,000 – perhaps as many as one million – of their compatriots who have gone abroad to find jobs.

“I think I’ll go to Romania to study, because it’s in the EU,” says Sinilga (15), whose parents work in Moscow. “And then maybe I’ll go to the United States. I want to be a dentist.”

Just as Moldova is wedged between the much bigger Ukraine and Romania, and shaped by both its Soviet past and older connections with Romania’s language, culture and history, so its society is now moulded by the twin forces of poverty and emigration.

Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, the average monthly salary is about €200 and more than a quarter of its 3.5 million people live below the national poverty line.

These dismal conditions have prompted more than 25 per cent of the country’s potential workforce to seek employment abroad, mostly in Russia and EU states.

Moldovans don’t need a visa to enter Russia, and a murky industry thrives on selling fake EU visas and passports to Moldovans. They can also apply for citizenship of Romania, which since its EU accession in 2007 guarantees holders the right to live in any country in the bloc.

The money that these emigrants send home to their families makes up about one-third of Moldova’s entire gross domestic product.

The outflow of people to wealthier nations does ease pressure on Moldova’s welfare system and social services and lowers unemployment, and the funds they send home are vital for the country.

But most of those who leave are young, and many are bright and ambitious, just the people Moldova needs to develop its economy. And they are settling down and raising families in other countries, leaving their homeland to limp on with an ageing and shrinking population.

Mass migration is also putting enormous strain on the fabric of Moldovan society.

“Orhei is like everywhere in Moldova,” explained the boarding school’s director of 14 years, Nicolae Cobasnianu.

“People go abroad to work illegally and don’t come back for three or four years. If the woman leaves, her husband stays here and probably finds someone else. In lots of cases the family is destroyed.”

Many Moldovan families do break up after one parent goes abroad to find work. And thousands of children are left with elderly relatives – or placed in an institution – while both parents seek employment abroad.

“We have a huge – unfortunately, a huge – phenomenon of children left behind by parents migrating abroad and the vast majority of them end up in orphanages or residential schools,” Maria Grazia Giammarinaro of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said recently.

The special representative on human trafficking for the 56-nation OSCE – chaired this year by Ireland – warned that such children are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

“Of course, when they are close to adulthood, they don’t have sufficient life skills and they are under economic pressure, so they are easy targets (for trafficking),” she said.

The OSCE is working with the Moldovan government and the Information and Documentation Centre on Child Rights (CIDDC) to guide teenagers through the transition to adult life when they leave orphanages and boarding schools like the one in Orhei.

The project’s mentors help teenagers develop simple skills they may not have learned growing up in an institution – like doing the weekly shopping and cooking healthy meals – and advise them on college and career options.

“We want them to have an alternative to migrating in unsafe conditions to pursue their aspirations,” Dr Giammarinaro said.

Moldova hopes progress towards EU accession will stem the tide of migration, and intends to finalise key deals with Brussels during Ireland’s presidency of the bloc in the first half of 2013.

“I would like all our people to come home, reintegrate with their families and contribute to the future of our country,” Moldovan prime minister Vlad Filat told The Irish Times.

“But to make this happen we must build functioning institutions, create well paid jobs, and the justice, health and education systems must work. Our standard of living must be higher. We need to bring EU principles and values to our homeland, so that people can have EU conditions here; so that those who left can return home, while remaining in Europe.”

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