Romania's 'Brain Drain'
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We've reported plenty on migrants to Europe from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa. But this is a quieter migration within the continent. When the Soviet Union collapsed a bit more than a quarter-century ago, it became possible for millions of people in Eastern Europe to move to the West for work. And so many people left Romania that this member of the European Union has lost about one sixth of its population. NPR's David Welna has this report from Timisoara, Romania.
MONICA GALEA: (Speaking Romanian).
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: At a farmers market here in Timisoara, fat green watermelons are stacked high at Monica Galea's stand. She carves into the red flesh of one of them and offers a sample.
GALEA: (Speaking Romanian).
WELNA: Growing and selling these watermelons, she says, is a family business. Not so much by choice, but because there's no one else to do it.
GALEA: (Through interpreter) All of the youth is gone away from our villages and you're left with the elderly and the very young. So it's very hard to find the labor on the farm. It's very hard to sell them, and it's very hard to get people to help with taking care of the crops.
WELNA: It's just after midnight, and the cafes are full on both sides of Victory Square in the middle of downtown Timisoara. The walls of the art-nouveau era buildings more than a century old are kind of crumbling, but they're also pockmarked with bullet holes. Those are left over from the revolution, as they call it, of 1989. At a sidewalk bar just down the street, 28-year-old Armand Iftota is nursing a beer. He was born in Timisoara that year of revolution when Romania's communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed. He now teaches other Romanians to speak German.
ARMAND IFTOTA: I am most of the time guilty or feeling guilty.
WELNA: That's because Armand feels he's facilitating Romania's brain drain by working for a firm that recruits Romanians to do elderly care in Germany. But he gets why people would leave, people like his own sister, a practicing dermatologist.
IFTOTA: And she really struggles to find a better job, a better payment and so on. Sometimes she tells me I should go to Germany, I should go to Austria. But not forever.
WELNA: She's not alone. A countrywide survey done last year by a German foundation found that more than 40 percent of Romanians would like to emigrate. At another local bar, 30-year-old Harry Percek hangs out with friends. He has two university degrees and a job doing online customer service for an American web design company, but he's thinking about going to Canada where visas will soon no longer be required for Romanians. Harry says he's fed up with this country's rampant corruption.
HARRY PERCEK: It is a big issue for me, personally, and for a lot of people I spend my time with. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be a big issue for the majority of the population.
WELNA: And in Canada...
PERCEK: Well, as far as I know, Canada is pretty well off when it comes to corruption.
WELNA: Corruption, in fact, is singled out in an International Monetary Fund report as a major factor pushing Eastern Europeans to emigrate. Nadeem Ilahi co-authored that report.
NADEEM ILAHI: The young and skilled look for economies where there is transparency, there is good governance, there is the rule of law and justice. And what we find is, is that there's a correlation between bad institutions domestically and the speed with which skilled workers exit.
WELNA: Romania's flight of skilled workers also frustrates foreign investors. Jose Miguel Vinals is a Spaniard whose consulting group in Timisoara works with foreigners trying to set up shop here.
JOSE MIGUEL VINALS: Right now we face situations like here where unemployment is almost zero, and companies struggle very hard to find qualified people.
WELNA: And is the problem that they're not offering high enough wages to compete with the jobs that people can get outside of Romania?
WELNA: Added to that is another problem, the money Romanians working abroad send home. The IMF says while these remittances help individual families they also make people less inclined to work for local wages, thus further shrinking the workforce, people like 38-year-old Juana Copocian.
JUANA COPOCIAN: Most of the people leave Romania for - for the money.
WELNA: The stay-at-home mother of two gets by on what her husband makes in Austria as a care provider to the elderly.
How long does your husband plan to stay working in Austria?
COPOCIAN: I don't know, but in the future for sure.
WELNA: So he has no plans right now for coming back here?
WELNA: Such workers from these new and poorer members of the European Union have been a boon to the wealthier nations they've flocked to. For the countries they've left behind, not so much. David Welna, NPR News, Timisoara, Romania.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.