SINAIA, Romania – Every day after school, Roxana Nicoleta Butnar talks with her dad, who asks her the usual stuff, like how her day went and if she needs anything. But Roxana’s after-school chats with her dad are special, because they have always been long distance, first on the phone and later on WhatsApp or Skype.
Roxana lives with her mom in a town in the east of the country, in one of the poorest regions of Romania. She is 16 years old, the same amount of time her dad has spent abroad working in construction, first in Madrid and now in the United Kingdom.
“The first time he left I was two months old, and I saw him again when I was one,” the teen recalled. She is spending her summer at a camp organized by the NGO “Save the Children” set up for children like her, who are growing up in Romania without their parents.
Roxana is one of the estimated 160,000 minors in Romania growing up with at least one parent having emigrated to earn a living elsewhere.
The phenomenon began around 2000 and cases shot up after 2007 when Romania joined the European Union, opening the door to freedom of movement.
Between 2015-17 alone, over 620,000 Romanians – 3 percent of the current population of 19.6 million – packed their bags in a bid to find a better life abroad, according to the country’s national statistics office.
The national authority for the protection of children’s rights and adoptions says about 95,000 children and teenagers, 10,000 more than in 2015, were living without one or both parents in 2017, their parents having moved to countries like Spain, Italy or Germany.
The education ministry’s figures are greater yet. According to several provincial school inspections, there are some 159,000 children who are “home alone,” separated from their emigrated parents. And these figures do not include those who are too young to go to school or who have left the education system.
Romania is one of the EU’s poorest countries with a per capita income of some 12,000 euros ($13,400) a year, only 40 percent of the average income across the bloc.
And this situation persists despite a low unemployment rate and growth above 4 percent for the first time in years.
Growing up with parents away, being looked after by aunts, uncles, grandparents or older siblings, usually has a negative psychological impact on children, experts say.
“The most common issues stem from a feeling of being abandoned,” psychologist Marius Rusu told EFE at a summer camp in the mountain resort town of Sinaia, some 130 km north of Bucharest.
Rusu works in the center that Save the Children has set up in the capital to assist “home alone” children and their families. He said it’s common for these children to fall victim to abuse at the hands of their peers.
“It’s enough to be different for whatever reason to be a victim of abuse,” said Rusu. A child’s family situation, the clothes they wear or owning more expensive possessions – bought with money their parents have sent home – can be enough to make them different, according to the psychologist.
“Who listens to these children?” Rusu asks, alluding to the loneliness frequently felt by children whose parents have emigrated.
A crucial factor for these children’s wellbeing is the attitude or abilities of the people who look after them, above all grandparents. “Although they have good intentions and want the best for the children, these people are often older and don’t have the same emotional availability to be with a child.”
To alleviate the burden on families, who usually have little training and few resources, the NGO has set up 17 centers across the country, which offer after-school leisure and support activities for hundreds of children.
“Often the parents tell their children they’re going for their own good, which leads the children to blame themselves,” said the head of the NGO’s program, Anca Stamin.
The internet, cheap flights and doing away with borders in the EU have aided communication and visits to parents who have left Romania, but the most important element remains the will to stay in touch. Not all parents manage to maintain a relationship with their children once they’ve left.
Andreea Alexandra Moise is 19, and like Darius Avram, 14, comes from Petrila in the central Hunedoara county. The coal mines in their region used to be a driving force behind the economy, but when they stopped being profitable their closure prompted many residents to emigrate.
Darius’ parents have been going abroad for seasons since he was four. The first time his mother left, he was seven. “It was really hard because she helped me a lot at school.”
It’s his father who appears on his telephone screen every afternoon after having used up his vacations in Romania and returned to work in Belgium.
Darius and Andreea spoke to EFE at a hotel that was hosting the summer camp in Sinaia.
“My dad’s in Italy, he went 10 years ago,” Andreea said. “Things changed a lot afterwards because my mom was left with five kids and had to be mom and dad to all of us,” she recalled, having lost contact with her father.
She has just finished high school and wants to study Law, but first she will follow in her father’s footsteps and emigrate.
“For now I’m going to another country to make some money to continue studying when I get back,” she said.