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Services under pressure

© UNICEF Romania/G. Pirozzi/ Family size children’s homes are rapidly closing down

Invisible, inconsistent and discrepancy seem to be keywords in the analysis carried out by NGO representatives of the current state of affairs in Romania. The ins and outs of the situation do not make for easy listening. Smaller NGOs which were active at local level have not survived the economic crisis.

They were filling gaps left by the state in social services which the Government is now hoping to delegate to the Church, such as basic provision of food and clothing to those living under the poverty line. Bigger NGOs are desperate to raise funds to continue their activities because Romania’s children deserve more than just basic survival. They need a stable environment, good education, quality health care and a long-term strategy to ensure that they will become well-adjusted and productive adults.  

SERA’s Bogdan Simion talks of the invisible child who is not on the child protection register. Compared to the 250,000 Romanian children living under the poverty line in the mid-noughties, there were a 100,000 more of them in 2009. Official figures show that there has been hardly any increase in the number of children entering the child protection system since 2007. Unofficially, it would appear that more children have been placed in care with state institutions during the last six months than has been the case since decentralisation of services began in 2003. The budgetary cuts and decreased capacity of residential units has meant that many children have been turned down by the system. Only children from extreme situations have been taken on.

‘Kids whose cases are not severe enough have not been registered with the system, they do not exist, no one knows what is happening to them,’ Dr Simion intones. ‘SERA has been good at dealing with the crisis so far. Fund raising is strong, using a French model. But what will happen when generosity dries up in a couple of years? Even now we only have the capacity to handle up to 20,000 emergencies a year. How about the remaining 330,000 or more children in need? Furthermore, we are experiencing an unprecedented leak of human resources to the West: doctors, nurses and social assistants are leaving in droves. There is a danger that services will soon collapse.’

UNICEF Romania has been supporting a programme aimed at the invisible child for over a year. Invisible children do not have a birth certificate or any other form of ID. They do not have a permanent address and live on the street. They are not enrolled in school or registered with a family doctor. They have been left behind by parents who have gone to work abroad, with no one to look after them.

In Ferentari, Bucharest’s most depressed district, the invisible child is the girl whose father acts as her pimp. Stories are told of how by night she prostitutes herself to earn the family livelihood. By day she is a pupil at the local school and attends a day centre for disadvantaged children. She is a good and conscientious pupil and daughter. She is clean and presentable to look at but her childhood has been soiled because her parents are out of work. The economic crisis has put paid to casual employment in the construction and service sectors which was the main line of work for many Roma family men and women.  

The leaders of the Roma community in Ferentari, Mr Muzacov and Mr Baicu, are working in association with Romani Cris and other NGOs to create more job opportunities in these severely testing times. They have felt repeatedly let down by delegations of local as well as European politicians and administrators, visiting researchers, experts and journalist from Brussels, and across the Atlantic.

‘They come. They ask questions. They take notes. They make promises but after they’ve gone, nothing ever happens. Nothing at all! We are desperate. We don’t want to see our children and grandchildren selling their bodies, begging or injecting drugs. Ceausescu used to care more about us. Now we only have Mr Filipescu.’
Since 1997, Ovidiu Filipescu and his Phillip House Foundation has been giving a second chance to children from disadvantaged families in Ferentari. Every year over one hundred school-age children benefit from a daily free meal, clothing, stationery, homework club, health services and the warm welcome of the day centre. These are children who come from broken families living in crammed unsanitary conditions, at risk of dropping out of school.

The centre is a godsend for the population of Ferentari, yet, finding money to run it has been a real challenge in the last couple of years. The local council waived the rent on the premises it occupies only a year ago. A teacher by training, Mr Filipescu is spending increasingly more time chasing potential donors rather than at the chalkface. This year he has received five placement applications for every two received in 2010.

© UNICEF Romania/ Liviu Andrei/One of the Roma girls at Caminul Phillip learning to follow basic rules of hygiene

‘Of course, the crisis is affecting the poorest and very visibly at that. Politicians who live in denial should drop by Ferentari.’ In a single stroke, Mr Filipescu dispels the myth that the economic meltdown and the ensuing austerity measures have not had a significant impact on the most vulnerable.
‘We won’t know for sure until the statistics for 2011 have come out,’ explains UNICEF’s , Voichita Pop, Program Specialist. ‘A much fuller analysis is necessary to determine whether the impact is significant. Figures published by the World Bank and IMF to date focus exclusively on the financial aspects of the crisis. The financial situation of a family with children is only one of the eight EU criteria used to assess child wellbeing.’

Research commissioned by UNICEF has shown that remittances from workers abroad to their families in Romania have more than halved between 2007 and 2010. The January 2011 changes to benefit eligibility criteria, have led over 75% of beneficiaries in some rural areas to lose their entitlement. This is in average 300 RON ($100) per month slashed from the budget of families who are surviving from one day to the next on bread and tea. There is a story told of how an official classed as income the bowls of soup a compassionate woman brought daily to her struggling neighbours. These bowls of soup cost the claimants their benefit award.

Anecdotes of this kind highlight the inconsistent application of to social welfare legislation. Certain regions receive smaller budgets from the central government because  political rather than needs criteria are often applied to the way allocations are made. Local authorities have to perform all sorts of tricks to make the money last longer. Often the most vulnerable lose out as they are not particularly good at seeking their rights. Illiteracy and lack of access to information and services have trapped old people and families with young children in rural areas in the middle ages.

Romania has the second fastest internet speeds in the world after South Korea, yet people living in its poorest regions have neither internet connection nor decent roads to connect them to the outside world. Running water, sewage, gas supply and public transport are a rare luxury. The northeast of Romania to which all of the above applies is the third poorest region in the whole of Europe.

‘On the plus side, the new legislation might stimulate individuals and families to behave more responsibly, to actively seek advice and employment, to get their paperwork in order and keep their children in education but there are no consistent guidelines on calculating the cost and quality of life of Romanian citizens,’ says UNICEF’s Mihaita Magheru. ‘No provision has been made for the invisible rural communities on the margin of counties commonly considered to be prosperous, like those in the west of the country, which don’t even have street lighting.’ 

The lack of consistency in applying social welfare legislation has resulted in many discrepancies. The big cities like Bucharest, Timisoara, Cluj, Sibiu, Arad and Constanta have five or more times bigger per capita incomes than the chiefly rural Botosani, Vaslui, Mehedint and Neamt. Unemployment figures for the latter are as high as their income is low. When the Government decentralised administration and social services, they retained a centralised model of the financial system. Many feel that this discrepancy, coupled with political favouritism, has created a glaring inequality in access to resources and quality of services among Romania’s population; an inequality which the austerity measures look set to further widen.



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