POROSHOVO, UKRAINE — 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."
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.
Stas and the other children interviewed clearly long for their parents. "When my mom comes home to visit she brings me oranges and chocolate, but then she leaves again and I don't see her for another year," Stas says. "I would rather have my parents home and do without the sweets. I miss them a lot, but they have to work far away because our country is broken."
Stas is one of the relatively fortunate children of migrants. His parents are able to visit each year, and he lives with two grandparents. In the nearby village of Stavne, teenager Tanya Ilchenko and her little brother, Vasya, lived with their grandmother for five years while their parents worked at various menial jobs in Central Europe. Then last winter, their grandmother died. They have been temporarily taken in by an aunt, but worry because they haven't heard from their parents in several months.
"I am very afraid for my mother," Tanya says, wiping tears off her cheeks. "It is very dangerous out there. Last time when she came to visit, bandits caught her on the way back and stole all of the money she had saved. So, she doesn't come very often, and my father hasn't been home in several years."
The risks for Ukrainian migrant workers are high. About 100 die abroad each year, and human rights organizations estimate that some 100,000 Ukrainian women are being held in sexual slavery in Europe.
Migrants often have to bribe officials and pay off organized crime in order to get home, which cuts into what they can bring their families.
"The classic scenario is someone going abroad to work illegally in bad conditions for very low wages," says Valeriy Padyak, a publisher and sociologist in the Carpathian city of Uzhhorod. "When they get there, they are paid maybe half of what they were promised, and sometimes the mafia takes even that. Many workers are held in a slavery-like condition in forced labor. But still, they keep going back. You can't just sit here doing nothing and watch your children go hungry."
Along the rutted mud roads of the Carpathian Mountains, one sees the occasional bright new facade on a traditional pyramid-roofed cottage - usually a sign of money from abroad. But the new homes are a rare exception. Instead, Mr. Padyak says economic migration has become a vicious cycle in which villages are stripped of their active populations, leaving those behind with even fewer opportunities.
"Anyone with any technical skills is long gone," he says. "The Poles are skimming off our doctors, and the Germans want our computer technicians."
In the village of Mokre, like the other mountain villages, most of the working age population is already gone. Natasha Pishkar, mother of a 5-year-old girl, is one of the few women left, and she says that she constantly thinks about emigrating. Last year, she traveled to work pulling onions in the agricultural region in southern Ukraine. For six months' work she received a wagon full of wheat, because the farmers had no money to pay her.
"No one here wants to leave [their] homes, but we have no real choice," Pishkar says. "I will find a way to cross the border, and I will do whatever work will pay any money at all. I am not afraid of hard work. I will leave my child with my mother, and I will leave."