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Disaster by depopulation

Some migrants who have left Moldova do well, and the money they send home is fuelling a mini-boom in the capital, Chisinau. But what has the overall effect of emigration been on the still desperately poor country? And what happens to the children left behind?

A billboard raising awareness of the dangers of people trafficking. It reads “You are not a commodity!” Thousands of women from Moldova work in the illegal sex trade in the West. Moldova is the main source of trafficking for sexual exploitation in Europe.© Andrew Testa / PANOS Pictures

‘‘MOLDOVA can surely be described as a demographic disaster,” says Larysa Byrka, president of the Moldova Red Cross. “Migration has affected every family, and we suffer both a brain drain and a youth drain as a result.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) published the first comprehensive assessment of migration management in Moldova in 2004. It said emigration had reached “enormous proportions” and was a “main concern” of the government in Chisinau. According to the 2004 World Population Data Sheet, a global study of population trends published by the Washington DC-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB), Moldova’s 4.2 million population will fall to 3.0 million by 2050. This is much higher than the average even for eastern Europe — a region of universally declining populations.

Moldova is tiny, sandwiched between the Ukraine and Romania. Since the breaking away of its industrialized Dniester region and independence from the USSR, it has struggled to create a viable economy and decent living conditions for its people. It remains the poorest country in Europe, despite rising economic growth since 2000. The average salary is less than US$ 100 a month, and some 80 per cent of the population were estimated to live below the official poverty line as recently as 2001.

Proportionately, the dimensions of Moldovan emigration are staggering. Estimates of Moldovans working abroad vary, but the unofficial figure is 600,000. “We think that the number of people working abroad could actually be as high as a million,” says Alan Freedman, IOM chief of mission.

“The first stage of mass migration began in 1993-1994 and was linked to the break up of the Soviet Union,” says Olga Poalelungi, the director of the government’s migration department. “During that period, people headed for Russia, the traditional destination in Soviet times. Its proximity and the absence of visa requirements made it very attractive. The second wave in 1995-1996 was mainly to Turkey, but strict migration rules quickly made this unpopular. Now people have discovered countries like Italy, Portugal and Spain, and increasingly Germany, the UK and Ireland. And here we are talking about young people, who are well educated and speak foreign languages.”

As a result of a decade of exodus, the traditional family is disintegrating: separation and divorce are common and children often end up being cared for by relatives and neighbours, falling prey to violence and exploitation. The issue of the “feminization” of poverty is also causing concern. Women have fewer economic opportunities than men and they have been leaving out of a desire to better their lives and those of their children. But in what is still an overwhelmingly matriarchal society, this too often results in broken families and abandoned children.


13-year-old Angelina is one of thousands of children left to fend for herself since both her parents left the country in search of work.
© Andrew Testa / PANOS Pictures

Quasi-gold rush

Moldovans working abroad send back at least US$ 500 million a year — more than the state budget. They are the ones buying luxury cars and building the three-storey houses springing up all over Chisinau like mushrooms. “I think of it as a kind of quasi-gold rush,” says Freedman. “You hear that there is a pocket of wealth and you start to share this information, and suddenly it creates an explosion.”

Then, in the shadows, there are the traffickers. “There are lots of people in this country who are selling migration as a dream, and traffickers use that,” says Freedman. “Migration is seen as the only real option for economic improvement and this works in the traffickers’ favour. Moldova is the perfect environment for trafficking.”

In 2000-2001 the most frequent destination countries for trafficked Moldovans were in the Balkans. But now the traffickers have shifted their attention towards the Middle East. “Children who stay behind when their parents migrate may be especially vulnerable,” says Veronica Lupu, who heads the Moldovan non-governmental organization (NGO), Women for a Modern Society. The traffickers bank on children not being looked after properly in Moldova.

Fourteen-year-old Larissa was beaten by her father and had sought refuge from him on the streets. One day she met a woman who bought a false passport and took her to Odessa in Ukraine. It’s impossible to guess what happened to her there — she doesn’t say — but she admits to “begging” not to be sent home because “I would just be killed by my father”.

There is little awareness in Moldova of the victims of trafficking. “Women and girls will never speak openly about what has happened to them,” says Tatiana Allamuradova, head of a centre for Moldovan NGOs in the mainly agricultural region of Gagauzia. “People here are very conservative — they are quick to label them as prostitutes.”

But trafficking is “not caused by the desire of girls to become prostitutes but by that of traffickers to make money”, argues Lupu. “Most of them are children from disadvantaged families. No one has any right to blame them.”

Ion Bejan, head of the government’s anti-trafficking office, highlights another dimension to trafficking: “Handicapped children and disabled people are of special value for traffickers. When people see them on the streets they feel sorry for them and give them money. A prostitute in Moscow might make US$ 300 a day, while in Poland a handicapped person can earn as much as US$ 700.”

Marina, 35, thought she was in luck when she was offered a sales job in Poland and told she could bring her 2-year-old son, who has only one leg. But the “agents” turned out to be traffickers who planned to use the boy for begging. “Every morning they scalded my son’s leg so it looked red and inflamed,” she recalls. “If I tried to stop them they beat us. I cannot forgive myself that my foolish hopes for a better life has scarred my child’s body and heart.”

Go to virtually any Moldovan village and you will hear essentially the same story from children who say they last saw their parents — who might be anywhere — two years ago, and last spoke to them a year ago. “During our summer campaign we went all over Moldova and collected people’s stories,” says Freedman. “There is a sense that what is normal is not a family that’s together, but a family that’s apart. What’s normal here is that parents are leaving, and leaving their children behind.”

In the village of Chimishlya, 70 kilometres from Chisinau, I meet two brothers: Maxim, 7, and 11-year-old Todor. “I cannot remember what mum looks like but she had blonde hair,” says Maxim. “She was beautiful,” adds Todor. Maxim never smiles. Why? “I cannot,” he tells me, without hesitation. The boys’ mother and grandmother went to Italy more than a year ago, leaving them with their grandfather. He is ill and poor and cannot provide for them properly. Their grandmother sometimes sends food and a little money, but their mother seems to have forgotten them.

“Only two of the pupils in my class live with both parents,” says Todor’s teacher, Natalia Kele. “Children need attention from their parents, and these children feel hopeless and worthless.”


A lost generation

“The most worrying thing is that migration has an extremely negative impact on family structure,” says Allamuradova. “Most parents go abroad using borrowed money, leaving none for their children.” In this environment, thousands of Moldovan children are forced to confront harsh economic reality long before they are ready. Some say they go to school just for the free lunch.

“Our primary task is to assist the most vulnerable,” says Larysa Byrka. “Today migration poses a challenge and we have accepted it. We have submitted project proposals to the Norwegian Red Cross on the problems of street children and children from disadvantaged families. Hopefully, we will soon be able to start work in psychological counselling, youth events and media campaigning.”

The population of Moldova is decreasing; its people are ageing. By 2015, the country will have lost 76,000 women of child-bearing age, according to a 2003 UN Population Fund country study, while most families are restricting themselves to one child because of poverty. The current birth rate in Moldova is comparable to that registered during the Second World War, according to many demographers.

“You can find people in their twenties and thirties in Chisinau,” says Alan Freedman. “But not out in the villages. Basically, people from 16 to 50 simply don’t exist because they have all left. It is like a war, a lost generation.”

Elena Nyanenkova
Elena Nyanenkova is International Federation publications and information officer at the Minsk delegation.

Some names in this article have been changed.


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