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Emigration wave leaves Romanian kids without parents

Raducaneni — The 13-year-old boy sees his mother twice a week — and only by webcam because she’s joined the waves of Romanians leaving their country to find work in Western Europe.

His village, where farmers still plough fields with the help of horses, has been especially hard hit by massive emigration that has left some 350,000 Romanian children without one or both of their parents, according to UNICEF.

"I am sad she is not here even if I understand why she had to go to Italy to work," said the 13-year-old, Constantin Roman.

"But for a year now we have had a computer and a webcam, a gift from school and Alternative Sociale (campaign group), and I can talk to her and see her. When we speak via the webcam, I feel really, really happy."

Romania went to the polls to elect a new president on November 22, and emigration and its impact on Romanian society was one of the election’s major issues.

Remittances totalling 6.3 billion euros (9.3 billion dollars) were sent back by Romanian expatriates in 2008, according to a commission set up by President Traian Basescu to study social risks.

While the financial boost may be welcomed by some, the commission warned that emigration could lead to a loss of competitiveness as skilled workers leave and the workforce becomes older.

The personal impact of emigration is felt by those left behind: often children and older people.

Alexandru Gulei, from Alternative Sociale, said most parents who emigrate to Western Europe only plan to stay long enough to earn money to build a house and pay for their children’s education.

"Most of the parents see the migration as temporary. That’s why they do not want to relocate the entire family," Gulei told AFP.

But the "temporary" migration often lasts years, he said, and the children left behind with grandparents or other relatives sometimes suffer.

The Iasi region in northeastern Romania, close to the border with Moldova, has seen tens of thousands of parents leave to work abroad in the hope of lifting their families out of poverty.

In Constantin’s village of Raducaneni, about 100 children out of a total of around 800 live without at least one of their parents, according to a local school survey.

Oana Amazilitei, a psychologist who comes to the village every week, said "emotional negligence" was a problem, with some parents diligently sending home money, toys and clothes but not keeping up personal contact and communication.

Constantin’s mother earns around 1,000 euros (1,500 dollars) a month in Italy, working as a hotel cleaner and looking after older people — substantially more than the average Romanian wage of around 340 euros (505 dollars) a month.

But for her son, who lives with his grandmother and four siblings in a tiny house, the twice-weekly online chats are the most important thing.

Not all children are as lucky as Constantin, Amazilitei said. Some are forced to labour in the fields by their relatives and others even fall victim to prostitution or criminal gangs.

For Gulei, the long-term solution to the problems of emigration lies in the economic development of Romania’s poor rural areas.

But in the short term, politicians can help by supporting assistance programmes like the ones in Raducaneni, he said.

Constantin believes his mother will come home soon, and the would-be footballer thinks about moving to Bucharest where "there are more opportunities".

"But not abroad: it is too hard to be far from your family," he said.