Romania: A Country of Two Tales
Rural Romania is an echo from a by-gone era
by Iana Bejaniyska, UNICEF Consultant
Every nation has its official and unofficial records of events past and present but against the backdrop of other European states Romania’s contrasts are,indeed, striking. Extremes exist in such close proximity that their juxtaposition is quite overwhelming. The sites of dumps where until recently the poor sorted through rubbish now boast upmarket post codes. In the very heart of affluent citiesthere are enclaves of horrible council housing where many live below the poverty line in antediluvian conditions. Overall, Bucharest, Timisoara, Cluj and other large cities are truly modern and cosmopolitan. RuralRomania, on the other hand, is an echo from a by-gone era, sunk in darkness and mud. Running water is a luxury there and so are indoor toilets. In cyber space, some of the most notorious hackers are Romanian whizz kids, yet a large proportion of the population does not even know the internet exists.
Until recently I used to flyto Bucharest with airlines like KLM and Tarom which operate their flights from Otopeni, thirteen kilometres outside Bucharest. The airporthaslight and airy departure and arrival halls. Women in white overalls keep it impeccably clean. It is the welcoming face of Romania to any foreigner who enters the country, especially for the first time.
This spring I chose to fly low-cost, the financial crisis bites us all. And I landed in a different country. A mere fifteen-minute drive from Otopeni is Baneasa, the Bucharest airport used by budget airlines. It does not have an arrivals hall. Friends and family have to queue in the open to greet their loved ones at the mercy of the weather. The passport control area has seen better days. The peeling paint, broken floor tiles and dilapidated baggage carousels are not quite what one expects in an EU member state.
On my visit I attend discussions concerning the effects of the economic crisis on the most vulnerable. After the first day I desperately wish Confused.com existed for country situation analysis. Just like the discordant airports, opinions are divided among experts and partners working with poor families and children.
Some insist that the current very poor of Romania were very poor even during the years of rapid economic growth. Their circumstances are unchanged as a result of the crisis. There are pockets of chronic poverty in the country which do not go away in plenty and in want.
Yet, the very poor who traditionally provide for their families as day labourers tell a different story. In urban areas, in particular, they have lost a huge share of their market which is now overcrowded by former regular employees who have been made redundant. Demand for their services has also contracted. Statistically these changes are very difficult to measure as they are not on record.
Local authorities claim that they are coping with the numberof child protection cases that are being referred to the system. There has been no noticeable rise in the number of entries in the formal care in 2010 compared to the previous three years. Likewise, there has been no decline in the standards of care or the number of services available to beneficiaries. Officially, it is exclusively employees of the system that have taken the brunt of the economic downturn rather than the beneficiaries, either by seeing a massive cut in their salaries or being let go altogether.
NGOs warn that the latter will lead to the rapid collapse of social services in Romania. There is a steady drainage of social workers and young doctors and nurses to the West. County directors of social services have expressed strong concerns about retaining key personnel. Furthermore, figures show that in 2009 the number of children living under the poverty line had gone up by 100,000 compared to a previous study. Out of these,hundreds require specialised social assistance; only a small percentageconstituting the most severe cases of child abuse are resolved due to the system’s incapacity to cater forthe greater demand. The rest are currently unaccounted for. They are Romania’s lost souls. Confusing? I warned you.
Requests for help to NGOs from families more than doubled in 2010. These included housing, financial and basic survival issues. For every two kids that came daily begging for food to the doors of a Bucharest day centre a year-and-a-half ago, now there are five. Small foster homes that had come to replace Romania’s infamous pre-1990 orphanages are shutting down around the country unable to pay their utility bills. Many children who are subsequently redirected to larger homes show signs of serious psychological regression.
Anca’s parents can only spend €5 on her basic survival needs every month
Since 2008 there has been a trend among foster parents of children with disabilities, heavily subsidised by the state,to return their dependants to the system, in most cases, in order to take up more lucrative employment abroad.
At the same time, due to the recession elsewhere in Europe, 4% of migrant workers have returned to Romania facing unemployment and putting further strain on services. Those who remain abroad are sending home a lot less and a lot less frequently.Grandparents looking after the children of overseas workers,struggle to provide basic commodities. More worryingly, some children are left behind on their own. The ‘home alone’ child is fast becoming one of Romania’s open secrets. Left-behind children develop behavioural problems and are at risk of missing a lot of school or dropping out altogether.
Consumption is much lower in both the public and private sectors. Families are making adjustments to their expenditure by cutting out non-food items, extra-curricular activities for their children, holiday trips and, most regrettably, fruit and many veg. When it comes to the crunch, Romanians are meat and potato people.
A formula for calculating the per capita income of a family treats as income children’s education bursaries. This has forced many parents into perverse choices preferring to forego a bursary in order to be eligible for income support thus denying their child the opportunity to go to high school or university.
Conversely, a set of stricter criteria for awarding supplementary allowance to families with school age children has led to improvement in school attendance.
The textile industry which employs a majority of women has remained buoyant. Workers have not been laid off. Salaries have not been cut. But working hours have increased. Many of them can no longer find the time or energy to engage with their children.
What families spend on their children varies enormously. Ethnic Romanians in regular employment can on average afford €131 per child per month whereas day labourers from the Roma community cannot manage more than €9.
There are fears that over the coming monthschanges to the benefit system which were introduced in January this year will seriously affect the most vulnerable members of society.Families on minimum income and the disabled are expected to be the hardest hit. So far symptoms of this happening are either sporadic or under the radar of statisticians. There are reports that in rural areas that only an estimated third of families who previously qualified for income support now meet the criteria to continue receiving benefit. Disabled individuals who were disqualified from obtaining benefits under the new guidelines are now living under additional stress and hardship.
Government agencies, NGOs and the Church have formed joint committees to steer Romania’s social services away from being reactive and towards being preventive in their approach, hoping to improve their quality and make them better value for money.But while they are talking a good talk, time and money are running out for those who depend on their support.