Monday, March 17, 2008

Prosperity without parents

DOUG SAUNDERS

Globe and Mail

CARBUNESTI, Romania

For seven-year-old Stefania Rocu, the hardest moments come at bedtime. That's when her mother would come to her bedroom for a nightly ritual of stories followed by a game of hide-and-seek beneath the covers, before tucking her in tightly.

But for the past five months, there has been no mother, no father and no hide-and-seek. Sleep hasn't been easy. "When I think about her," Stefania says as she watches TV with the many children who now live with her grandparents, "that's what I miss."

The grandparents, like most people in the village, are peasant farmers. They say they love Stefania, her sister and cousins as if they were their own kids, but they have little time for playing games at bedtime. Besides, they have a hard time explaining to the little girl why her parents have disappeared, so they avoid the subject. Now Georgiana, her 14-year-old sister, puts Stefania to bed, and understands better. "In my class, only five students have their parents here. It makes me normal. It's just children and old people here."That is exactly what Carbunesti is: a community of grandparents and grandchildren. More than half of the working-age adults in this central Romanian village of 1,400 have moved to Italy or Spain in search of jobs as cleaners, builders, farm labourers, drivers or — in the case of Nicoleta, the girls' mother — waitresses.

Carbunesti is far from unusual. In fact, Romania recently realized that hundreds of thousands of children have lost their parents to the economic opportunities and cruel immigration laws of the West.

The media call them "migration orphans" — a dangerously loaded term in a country with memories of the cruel state orphanages run by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980s. Some divided families have been stigmatized, and officials have suggested parents be punished for what amounts to child abandonment. But the situation isn't quite so simple.

In the past two years, Romania has become the newest member of the European Union, and more than 2.5 million of its citizens have gone to jobs in wealthier nations — mainly Italy and Spain, whose languages are similar to Romanian, but also to Britain and Ireland.

Together, these migrants send more than $5-billion a year back to their families, a massive subsidy that accounts for 4 per cent of the country's national income.

Studies show that their families are better off, materially and nutritionally, than those of Romanians who stay at home. And the influx of highly productive labour has created a boom in Western Europe, especially in Spain, which has seen record economic growth.

But because the same countries are also making it increasingly difficult for migrants to bring along their families, that boom is creating villages without parents.

Now a detailed study by the Bucharest office of the Soros Foundation has concluded that about 350,000 children — almost one youngster in every five — have at least one parent working abroad, for at least two years, and often four or more. This accounts for about 18 per cent of all junior high-school students alone.

TRUE ORPHANS

Although most are left with their grandparents, several thousand have landed in group homes or other state institutions because relatives can't care for them — becoming, for all intents and purposes, true orphans.

"These people are going abroad to survive — to pay for food and education for their children," says Mihaela Stefanescu, who compiled the Soros study.

"It's happening in clusters. Whole villages went to the West, and enough of them have gone that it's now a national phenomenon."

This is creating a number of problems. Even in Carbunesti, a sleepy collection of ramshackle houses ringed by farms and orchards, says mayor Petre Stan, it's now extremely difficult to find anyone to fill jobs, especially in construction and maintenance.

"We have a lot of work here," he says, "but you can hardly find any skilled people — it's hard to get anything built."

Indeed, the unemployment rate has fallen to 4 per cent, and now Romania itself is seeking migrant labourers, from Asia.

But the parentless children are a more intractable problem. The Soros study found a higher incidence of psychological troubles among the "children left behind" (as the government prefers to call them).

"It puts a lot of pressure on the whole family. For the children, it can lead to depression," says Gabriella Tonk, the government's undersecretary of state for children's rights. "And the parents are much more likely to … end their marriages if they're migrating abroad."

Indeed, the Rocu girls' parents have split up since leaving home, and their father hasn't been heard from. The story is the same for several other families in the village: The strain of migration clearly does a relationship little good. Romanian women who work abroad have a divorce rate of 37 per cent, almost four times the national average.

In Carbunesti, older children say they have more possessions and clothes than do their friends whose parents have stayed, and their families' houses are in visibly better condition and better-equipped, with TVs and cellphones.

But they are also constantly afraid that their parents have abandoned them forever.

"I understood at first, because my mother had no work and needed to pay for food for us," says Elena Andrea Pasca, 13, whose mother went to Spain two years ago to pick strawberries, and has since left her husband and married a Spanish man.

"But when I talk to her on the phone each weekend, I tell my mother, please come back home, because I miss her so much. I tell her, please don't desert your children like some parents do. I would not leave my children behind like this."

INFERIOR CITIZENS

Other countries, such as Poland and the Philippines, have seen enormous out-migrations of employable adults. But the problem of migration orphans is especially dramatic in Europe's newest members, Romania and Bulgaria.

That's because most Western European nations, worried about the flood of workers coming from these very poor eastern countries, have imposed restrictions on their access to social assistance, housing and schools, whereas migrants from the other 25 EU countries are treated as full citizens.

As it happens, such worries have been unfounded: While many Romanians have gone west, almost all find employment in fields with labour shortages; there have not been heavy demands on social services. But as a tragic side-effect of these policies, Romanian parents, unlike those of most other countries, are forced to leave their children behind.

Politicians such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy have won elections on promises to reduce or eliminate the "family-reunification" category of immigration — which has always generated the majority of immigrants, Canada included. Behind such promises is a deep hypocrisy: While their economies demand large supplies of cheap labour from a global pool of workers, they increasingly treat the newcomers as inhuman commodities, preventing them from living as families in their new homes.

"Because of the policies in the host countries, these parents don't have the opportunity to take children with them — they won't have the health insurance, the papers to get them into school. So they get left behind," says Ms. Tonk, the children's-rights official.

"By restricting their right to work, they are creating this crisis. To solve this problem, to manage it, it's necessary for both Romania and the host countries to get involved."

Last month the Romanian legislature conducted a debate on how to deal with the problem. Some representatives wanted to punish the parents with fines or criminal charges — something that experts say would exacerbate an already painful situation.

But it emerged that only half of Romania's towns and villages have a social worker who is able to identify these children — a problem, since many of them end up with very old or infirm relatives, not really able to care for young children.

In Carbunesti, social worker Alexe Dumitru was assigned last year to watch out for the parentless children. He says they are all cared for materially, but even so there is a toll.

"I would say that they are unhappy from an emotional point of view," he explains, as he makes his rounds through the village's muddy streets.

"It is very hard for them to say that they are unhappy. I hear them saying it among themselves, but they won't admit it to me. The grandparents, on the other hand, have moments when they admit it's hard for them."

The children in the Rocu family are approaching their new status with stoicism — and with the help of a Skype connection in the village's internet cafĂ©, which allows them to talk to their mother in Madrid every couple of days.

"My sister cried all the time when our mother left, and I cried in the first week and got angry," says Georgiana Rocu. "Now I'm used to it … My grandparents feel like my parents."

WORST IS YET TO COME

Romania's problem with "migration orphans" is almost unknown beyond its borders, but things could get worse because of the policies countries such as France and Britain have introduced to make it tougher for migrant workers to bring in their families.

This month, the British government proposed a program in which huge fees, possibly thousands of dollars, would be required for the admission of people who don't contribute to the economy, such as children and grandparents. The policy likely won't apply to EU citizens, but Britain has yet to treat Romanians as full EU equals.

"There is a real need to normalize their situation — to let them become legal workers in these countries, to find housing, and then they can bring their children over," says Ms. Stefanescu, author of the Soros study. "But there are still a great many barriers in place."

Until that changes, the burden of restrictive policies will be borne by Romania's grandparents and, especially, by its children.

"My daughter knows that her little girls are well taken care of here, and they're always in her mind," says Florea Musat, grandmother of the Rocu girls.

"This is very, very hard for her, but it's what she has to do. And the girls know that."

Doug Saunders is a London-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail. This week, his three-part series for Focus on the state of the world's middle class was nominated for a National Newspaper Award.

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