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EUROPE: Bringing Up a ‘Lost Generation’

Pavol Stracansky

BRATISLAVA, Jul 12 2009 (IPS) - A “lost generation” of children vulnerable to crime and exploitation is growing up in Eastern Europe as their parents migrate abroad for work and leave them behind, migration watchdogs warn.

Hundreds of thousands of children across the region are living with relatives, friends or in institutions after one or both of their parents moved to other countries in search of jobs.

Migration experts say the phenomenon is not only having a devastating psychological impact on many of these children now, but will cause serious problems for societies in their homelands for decades to come.

“These children are a lost generation,” says Jemini Pandya, spokeswoman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). “They struggle at school and some drop out, leaving them vulnerable to crime and exploitation.

“This is creating a serious social problem for the future. Being left alone when their parents migrate abroad has a serious psychological effect on them.”

Local and international organisations in Europe estimate that there are hundreds of thousands, possibly more than a million, children in Eastern Europe who are left behind by one or more parents when they leave for work abroad.

There are few official government figures on this, as many children are left behind with relatives or family friends, and in many cases authorities are not informed when parents leave their children with family members.

But in other cases the children end up in state orphanages.

Child welfare groups say the largest number of children left behind are in the poorest countries in the region, including Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania.

The Soros Foundation in Romania says the country has 350,000 such children. The Romanian government has only recently begun collating data on migration but estimates that as many as three million Romanians have moved abroad for work.

There have been reports of children as young as 12 killing themselves after their parents left. Social workers say others have been left suffering severe depression.

“If there is one parent still with them then it is not so bad, but if both leave then they are often affected,” Denisa Ionescu from the Soros Foundation, which is leading several projects with children, told IPS. “They can become depressed or very sad.

“Some of them can have bad grades and problems at school. But it varies from case to case. If they have no one to talk to they may fall into problems with crime or drugs. These children are now classed as a ‘vulnerable’ group by the government.”

Last week Romania passed new laws which will see fines of up to 2,500 euros – almost two-thirds of the average yearly wage in Romania – for parents who do not at least leave their children with family members. Fines can be imposed also on parents who do not inform social welfare offices they are intending to move abroad for work 40 days before they do so.

Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, is facing a similar situation. “Moldova and its children have been very much affected by a ‘parent drain’,” Lina Botnura, spokeswoman for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Moldova told IPS.

Figures from the organisation show that 20 percent of children in Moldova have one parent abroad, and ten percent have seen both leave. Official government figures show that 340,000 Moldovans work abroad. In some smaller communities almost all the parents have left, leaving children behind with grandparents.

They say that grinding poverty – the average yearly wage is 1,800 euros, and a number of studies have shown that around 25 percent of the population live below the poverty line – has forced adults to leave so they can support their families.

More than 1.6 billion dollars were sent home by Moldovan migrants working abroad in 2008, according to official figures. Child welfare experts agree that these remittances have helped many poverty-stricken children materially. But they warn that there has been a negative psychological effect on them.

UNICEF spokesman John Budd told IPS: “There are psychosocial impacts on these children. They have extra material wealth but they are obviously missing out on having their parents with them as part of a family life.”

Poland has seen an estimated one million people migrate abroad for work since it joined the EU in 2004 and Western European states opened their labour markets to Poles.

Studies commissioned by the Ombudsman for the Protection of Children in Poland have shown that there are 12,000-15,000 migrants’ children in orphanages. But migration watchdogs say there are many more who have been left with relatives, and estimate there are as many as 150,000 children who have at least one parent working abroad.

They warn that while the phenomenon is affecting individual children now, it will cause huge problems for society in 20 years.

“There are serious long-term costs to this phenomenon, and there are question marks over how these children are going to turn out in ten or 15 years time,” Krystyna Iglicka, migration expert with the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw, told IPS. “By then it will be a problem for all of Polish society.

“Psychologists who have been to orphanages and met with the children of parents who have migrated say that these children don’t understand why they have been left. It is not like when they have been separated from their parents because of alcoholism, for instance, where they understand one or both their parents are ill in some way and need treatment. In this case they do not understand why they cannot be with them.”

But fining migrating parents for leaving children behind would do little to solve the problem, Iglicka said. “It is hard to blame the migrant parents, as many of them face very poor prospects and have to leave. Fines are not a barrier to the migrant parents. They will not stop them leaving.

“Governments can help by improving the labour market situation and creating new opportunities. But most of all a system should be put in place forcing parents who go abroad and leave their children to appoint a legal guardian before they can leave.”

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