22nd March, 2018

A small boy of about four is playing alone on a heap of pebbles in the street as a light spring sun sets over the village of Cris in southern Transylvania. The local church bells toll and his grandmother calls him back to their dilapidated home.

It is not the only house in this village in a state of disrepair; nor is the boy, Alexandru, the only small child playing in the streets with little else to do. In the Romanian countryside, there are few working-age young adults in sight, as many leave to settle in cities or other EU countries in search of better opportunities and higher wages.

Between 2007, when the country joined the EU,  and 2017 around 3.4m Romanians emigrated, two-thirds of them aged 18-39. That outflow is second only globally to war-torn Syria. There may be no war, but for many, there is little hope. In many villages, where people commonly make homemade spirits, alcoholism is rife and only adds to the general sense of hopelessness. Village doctors report that up to 60 per cent of their patients have alcohol-related medical problems.

“Young Romanians leave the countryside because villages lack opportunities and, often, access to basic infrastructure,” says Sebastian Burduja, Founder of PACT for Romania, a platform for youth civic engagement. “They lack proper roads, sanitation, schools, and hospitals and you hear people saying: ‘we are hopeless here.’”

Poverty in rural Romania can be striking. On the fringes are scores of Roma families living in tiny makeshift houses. Many are collapsing. According to the World Bank, 70 per cent of Romania’s rural population—which makes up almost half of the country’s roughly 19m people—live below the poverty line.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women have opted to work abroad and send money back home in remittances, which are often used for incremental home improvements. But many families are being torn apart by economic emigration. An estimated 350,000 economic orphans have parents who live abroad.  There are far-reaching implications. Doctors, nurses and teachers have left in droves which has dramatically lowered the quality of education and healthcare.

“The solution would be to grow the private sector and invest in infrastructure,” says Burduja. “But another part has to do with the general feeling of disempowerment and a lack of faith in the democratic process.”

Corruption in Romania is rife but the left-wing Social Democrat (PSD) government is hell-bent on reversing hard-won measures that would undermine the country’s longstanding crackdown on graft. In recent years, Romania’s national anti-corruption directorate has been prosecuting graft at an unprecedented rate, which has led to the convictions of scores of political figures including PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who received a two-year sentence in 2016 for vote-rigging and who now faces charges for embezzling EU funds.

Successive governments have implemented schemes offering grants to start-ups, SMEs and to those who wish to repatriate, but it appears to have little impact. On top of low wages and poor living conditions, official sleaze is often cited as a key factor in why young Romanians leave the country and don’t rush home. Doctors and nurses have recently been given significant wage hikes, but whether it will stop the exodus is yet to be seen.

Shortly after Alexandru’s grandmother ushered him in from the streets, an elderly man staggered past, muttering under his breath while picking up pieces of litter. He then threw the litter into the shallow stream next to him before settling cross-legged on a bench overlooking a soup of degrading plastic.

From here, despite the scenic backdrop of rolling hills amid the natural optimism of spring, it is hard to see a way forward for much of rural Romania. Nor is it hard to see why its young leave it all behind at the earliest opportunity.