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Children left parentless as migrants flee poor Ukraine

By Arie FarnamSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2003


Along the banks of a mountain stream, village children gather firewood to be used for roasting yet another meal of potatoes. "That's all there is to eat these days, potatoes and more potatoes," says 10-year-old Stas. "That's why all our moms and dads left."

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This western edge of Ukraine is one of the most impoverished places on the European continent. Here, the Carpathians form both a natural barrier between the former USSR and Europe - and an economic dividing line between desperation and hope.

Most of the adults in these mountain villages have made the crossing in order to work illegally in Central and Western Europe. But the price is high: a generation of children left behind with grandparents, and a region increasingly drained of its working population.

The trends are part of a larger shift seen in this former Soviet republic. Ukraine is swiftly replacing Southern Europe as the source of cheap labor for the Continent.

While the Ukrainian government registers just 30,000 citizens working legally in foreign countries, analysts estimate that as many as 7 million Ukrainians already work abroad, and that number is growing by about a million each year. These migrants bring about $1 billion back to Ukraine annually, government agencies claim. While the money they earn abroad has become a lifeline in village economies, sociologists warn of a host of negative effects.

"I think the risks outweigh the benefits for most families," says Amy Heyden, director of the Trafficking Prevention Program at Winrock International, a nonprofit based in the US. "Ukrainian migrant workers abroad have a 50-50 chance that they will be able to earn enough to send money home.

"Meanwhile," she says, "migration is causing a breakdown in the moral fabric of Ukrainian communities. There has been a sharp increase in divorce and abandoned children. It is a painful dilemma. On the one hand, families desperately need the income from working abroad, but it is forcing a great many children to grow up without their parents."

Stas's mom and dad work in greenhouses in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, 100 miles west of Poroshovo. His mother is a university-educated orchestra director and his father a skilled builder. As undocumented migrants, they work 18 hours a day and earn $1.50 per hour.

Back home, most of the population in the region lives at or below the UN "absolute poverty" line of $1 a day, and unemployment in many communities is more than 80 percent.

"Our young people do not want to leave, but there is no work at all here," says Irina Stigura, Stas's grandmother. "My daughter cries when she comes to visit. She says that in the West she is called a dirty Ukrainian dog. But Ukrainians are hard-working people, and we are one of the most educated nations in the world. We don't deserve this poverty."

After paying expenses and bribes to cross borders illegally, Stas's parents are able to send home about $100 a month to support the family.