Thousands of Moldovans are leaving their country -- one of the poorest in Europe -- in search of better economic conditions just about anywhere else. The massive emigration is leaving villages without teachers, and children without parents. RFE/RL's Lily Hyde visited a village south of the capital Chisinau where one out of seven of inhabitants have already left.
Chisinau, 5 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Teenage boys enjoy a game of basketball at their school in Gura-Galbena, south of Chisinau. They are fortunate to have a young teacher who is able to join in.
Many other children can be seen milling around the school grounds during class time. But they are not the truants. It is their teachers who are failing to come to work, leaving their pupils without lessons.
Over recent years, this school has lost one-fifth of its teachers, part of a wave of emigration from Moldova that is affecting life throughout the country.
Gura-Galbena has lost around 1,000 young, able-bodied inhabitants out of a population of 7,000. The village appears prosperous, but at a cost. The homes are refurbished, the children clothed with money sent home from abroad, where their parents are working.
English teacher Zinaida Perciun spent a year in Israel as a housekeeper. She is one of the few who chose to return.
"There are some teachers who left five years ago. They don't want to come back to school because the salary is miserable and the conditions are also miserable. You have no text books, no materials, nothing to work with. The children are like orphans here in our village, because both their parents have left. They live with cousins, with uncles, with grandparents, with neighbors, and a neighbor will not pay the necessary attention to the child."
School administrators have tried to make up classes by recruiting pensioners as teachers. The deputy school head weeps as she describes the decline of her school, whose graduates once won prestigious scholarships here and abroad. Now Perciun is the only English teacher for 1,000 pupils, and there is no Romanian teacher at all.
Since it declared independence in 1991, the tiny republic of Moldova has not established a viable economy. According to most indicators, it is the poorest country in Europe. An ineffective government has failed to pass necessary reforms, thus blocking international loans. The country had reached such dire straits at the beginning of this year that the Center for Strategic Studies and Reforms, which carries out studies for the World Bank, recommended the government to default on its external debt.
But Moldova avoided that crash, as Anatoly Gudym, the center's executive director, explains:
"As it turned out, the people saved the government. Moldovan 'ostarbeiters' [that is, Eastern or guest laborers] work in Russia, the Mediterranean countries -- Greece, Italy, Spain, France -- and even Ireland and Great Britain. And these people saved themselves and saved the state. In the summer months, they transferred via Western Union up to $100,000 every day. In total this year, Moldovans sent home not less than $170 million. What is the $20 million promised by the World Bank compared with $170 million?"
International funding is likely to be resumed soon, after parliament finally approves a restrictive state budget and a landmark privatization bill. Parliament took a big step last week by approving the budget in a third and final reading.
But many Moldovans are not waiting for conditions at home to improve. According to the Moldovan Information and Security service, 600,000 Moldovans live and work abroad -- about one-third of the country's workforce. Mostly white-collar Moldovans emigrated to Russia, Romania or the West in the early 1990s, especially during the Transdniester conflict. These days Moldovans go all over the world to construction or unskilled service jobs like housekeeping.
Nearly all go illegally. According to the Interior Ministry, only 420 people found work abroad legally this year, while over 2,000 were deported from Europe. No country has signed work agreements with Moldova, which means that Moldovans abroad are unprotected and liable to exploitation. In Italy alone this year, 19 Moldovans died, many of them women caught up in the vicious underside of the international sex trade.
Nicolae Dobos heads the recently created criminal police department within Moldova's Interior Ministry. He says Moldova has only recently come to accept human trafficking in its many aspects as a problem.
"Earlier, we didn't pay attention to this problem. Trafficking can take many forms: the illegal transfer of people for prostitution, for sale into slavery, for sale of organs, and for use in the sex industry. The newest [form] is transfer for the purpose of taking organs on which we have criminal cases pending. Do you know how many cases there are where people are simply tricked? Every week we bring back not less than five, six people who ended up abroad illegally, without documents, without anything."
Twelve recent criminal cases all concern locals from one village who, with or without their full consent or awareness, were paid for one of their kidneys. The kidneys were removed in Turkey or Georgia.
Most of them received only $1,000. Dobos fears many more cases have simply not come to light, and changes in the law imposing stricter penalties on those who facilitate trafficking of any kind are unlikely to deter Moldovans from traveling abroad to earn a living -- by any means.