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The coronavirus accomplished what no Moldovan government could have done or wanted to do. From Bas-TV.

Hundreds of thousands of labor migrants began streaming back home to Moldova when the first wave of the pandemic hit. What could induce them to stay home and what steps has the government taken? Or should we instead hope the formidable army of young, employable Moldovans will grasp another opportunity to leave for Europe, Israel, or Russia?

According to the World Bank, Moldova’s population was 2,681,735 on 1 January 2019. This means that in the past 30 years, the country has lost almost 1 million inhabitants, chiefly because of emigration. If the current trend continues, experts at the Vienna Institute of Demography predict, the population could fall to 1.7 million by 2050.

This spring, however, as countries around the globe imposed lockdowns and other measures to check the spread of COVID-19, a reverse process began: newly jobless expatriates started to head home to Moldova. According to the Border Police, about 1,275,000 people entered Moldova in the period from March to November, and 5,000 to 7,000 keep arriving every day by land and air. Clearly, not all of them should be considered labor migrants, but according to various estimates this group makes up no less than 70 percent of the total number of inbound border crossings.

“Full-fledged labor migrants are people who live and work abroad for several years, those who have settled down there. Because of the pandemic, they are currently out of work but still have opportunities to return later,” economic analyst and former parliamentarian Veaceslav Ionita says.“Their decision to come back to their native country is motivated by cheaper living costs here, as they have relatives here and either can stay at their parents’ home or have their own accommodation.”

Jobless Rate Rises, but Slower Than Feared

Before the coronavirus crisis, the registered unemployment rate in Moldova was among the lowest in Europe, at about 4 percent, according to National Bureau of Statistics data. When the pandemic hit, the number of unemployment claims jumped sharply, the National Employment Agency (ANOFM) says. Many returning workers, along with those based in Moldova, applied for  unemployment support of around 2,775 lei ($160) per month.

The explanation for this phenomenon, Ionita believes, is that after losing a job, many workers don’t even try finding another job in their native country, choosing instead to pack their bags and go abroad. Now, deprived of their foreign earnings, these people have been returning home and applying for aid.

More than half of the roughly 41,000 unemployed as of 1 November joined the jobless rolls after 1 April. However, officially, just 1,411 individuals are repatriates. Since the data are based on the applicants’ own statements, the figure is probably on the low side because applicants rarely want to admit their status as repatriates, ANOFM explains. The same factor means the true number of jobless is higher than the official figure.

These figures also do not take into account those returnees who do not register with the Employment Agency, either because they hope to go abroad again soon or because they have found work.

An Expat’s Tale

Svetlana Verbitsky left Basarabeasca, a city in southern Moldova, for work abroad in 2007. When the pandemic began, she was working as a nanny in Germany, but found herself out of a job when the lockdown took hold. Recruitment agencies closed, and it became impossible either to find another job or return home.

Svetlana Verbitsky with her daughter and grandchildren. All photos are courtesy of Bas-TV.

“With the borders closed and flights canceled, I wouldn’t have been able to leave Germany for two months,” she says. “As soon as I could, I returned home with people I knew in their car. I spent some time at home with my daughter, son-in-law, and my three beloved grandchildren, then began to look for work. I needed to make a living, after all. To my own surprise, I found work fairly soon as a nanny for a family in Chisinau. I haven’t made up my mind whether to go abroad again.”

Some experts suggest that this returning labor force could give a new impulse to Moldova’s social and economic development. Others disagree. They maintain that if the majority of returnees stay in the country and stop sending money to their families from abroad, it will be a real shock not only for the families, but for the economy as a whole. Thus, they argue, it is not advantageous for the government either to provide jobs to these people in Moldova or to create conditions for starting a business.

Will Remittances Recover?

World Bank data show that remittances sent to Moldova from abroad typically make up from 16 percent to 22 percent of the country’s GDP. In 2019, remittances sent via banks amounted to $1.2 billion – roughly $1,000 per household, the equivalent of two months’ average wages for an individual.

The effects of remittances are felt the greatest in rural areas, where most recipients live. And even this large sum does not reflect the true scale of remittances, according to Mikhail Poisik, an economist at the National Institute for Economic Research, because migrants bring most money home with them as cash. Last year, Moldovans changed $2.2 billion worth of cash at currency exchange counters.

This year, however, remittances could fall by half, Poisik says.

“In January and February the volume of currency exchange was $305 million for these two months. So at the beginning of the year, people were still working,” he notes. The flow of foreign currency – so critical for Moldova’s economy – then started to dry up.

But could it snap back? Data indicate that labor migration is picking up again: just over 800,000 people left the country between July and October, according to the Border Police. In the first phase of the pandemic, some foreign companies even chartered planes to take workers to Germany and Poland.

Agriculture, construction, and food processing employ the greatest number of Moldovans abroad, says Vasiliy Cheban, head of the Association of Recruitment Agencies of Moldova.

“The [early wave] of the pandemic coincided with the beginning of the agricultural and construction season, a time when workers are in high demand. If the demand for labor increases, salaries and wages grow as well,” Cheban says.

“Employers are ready to pay more so foreign workers come to them and not their competitors. For instance, a construction worker used to earn about 2,500 euros gross, but during the pandemic the same worker can earn 3,000 euros.”

National Bureau of Statistics data show that male migrants outnumber women, making up 55 percent of the foreign-based workforce. Young workers predominate: 32 percent and 27 percent of migrants fall into the 20–29 and 30–39 age cohorts, respectively. Rural areas contribute 79 percent of labor migrants. Migration varies widely by region: rates are roughly three times higher in the southern Cimislia and Basarabeasca districts than in the municipalities of Chisinau and Balti.

In the past 15 years the numbers of children and the elderly leaving the country have risen, reflecting a tendency for the reunification of migrant families abroad, according to the statistics bureau.

Many labor migrants return home periodically, although about about one in 10 stays abroad permanently. According to the Center for Demographic Research of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, around 30,000 people emigrate permanently every year. Russia, Ukraine, the United States, Germany, and Israel are the most popular destinations.

Bigger Paychecks and Higher Quality of Life

Viktor Mocanu, president of the Moldovan Association of Sociologists and Demographers, explains that the social status of emigrants is changing.

“If until 2010 a migrant’s decision to leave the country was dominated by economic factors – people simply lacked money to provide for their families –  now we can observe the migration of young adults who are more or less well-off and well-educated. It means they are not satisfied with the prevailing social and economic situation in the country.”

Valentine Buchatsky, a native of Basarabeasca, went to work in Germany seven years ago, when he was 25. What he first planned as a temporary stay became a permanent move. Now, his family, home, job, and prospects are there.

“It would be difficult for me to return to my native Moldova,” Valentine Buchatsky says.

“I decided to stay in Germany mostly because I wanted my children to have better prospects. … I’m afraid it would be difficult for me to return to my native Moldova even in my old age.

“One of the arguments in favor of living here are social guarantees for everyone – children, employed people, and seniors. … People with jobs naturally pay  higher taxes, but if they lose their job, they receive around 65 percent of their average annual income for the previous year – and if they earned well, it could be about 1,600-1,800 euros a month. That’s enough to live pretty well here and even to go on vacation once a year.”

Valentine sometimes returns to his homeland to visit his parents and relatives.

“When I come to Moldova and to my native city of Basarabeasca, to be honest, I hardly notice any changes for the better. And these little things that are being done aren’t enough to make me or other migrants return permanently. There is not that much work here, salaries and wages are low, little help exists for young families from the state, the healthcare system is weak, the educational system gets worse and worse with each passing year …”

For Svetlana Verbitsky, who turned 50 this year, her home, family, and soul will always be in Moldova.

“The quality of life and culture are definitely higher both in Europe and in the U.S., but I have never felt at home abroad. In Germany … I was most annoyed by their bureaucracy. Certainly, I have thought about returning to Moldova for good – these thoughts have never left my mind: my children, grandchildren, and friends are here, but I wasn’t sure whether I could find a decently paid job here. If our state offered that to me and my fellow Moldovans forced to earn our daily bread in foreign countries, I think many of us would rather live and work in our motherland.”

A Coming Wave of Immigrants?

This is not to say that Moldova’s government has done nothing to attract migrants back home. For instance, from 2014 to 2016, a government program guaranteed financial aid to former labor migrants who launched a business in the agricultural sector, and laid the groundwork for public-private partnerships involving returning migrants.

Early this year, the government set up a commission to study the effects of depopulation and mass emigration on the country’s development. Then came the pandemic and an economic crisis in its wake – and the government was practically helpless to mitigate its effects.

“All previous programs, plans, and strategies called for opening new production facilities and creating new jobs, but now the situation has changed, and new jobs won’t be created. On the contrary, huge job cuts are coming,” Poisik says.

“Small businesses have simply closed, and big businesses either give their workers unpaid vacations or cut salaries and wages. Under these conditions, the only thing the state can offer its unemployed citizens, including guest workers returned from abroad, is the involuntary unemployment allowance of 2,775 lei, some financial aid for people willing to work in the agricultural sector … or some menial work.”

Veaceslav Ionita is convinced that returned migrants faced with a choice between menial work in Moldova or abroad will prefer the second, much higher paid option. Job openings in domestic firms will be taken either by citizens unable or unwilling to leave, or by immigrants, he believes. In that case, Moldova could soon transform from a supplier to an importer of labor, and the government will be forced to open the door to foreign workers.

For now, as the daily number of COVID-19 infections keeps rising, few but low-skilled jobs are being advertised in Moldova. According to National Employment Agency data, as of 23 November, 78 percent of the 7,694 vacancies required only vocational training or none. Just 28 vacancies were listed in Basarabeasca, almost all for jobs on the railway.

Liudmila Topal has been chief editor of Bas-TV and its sister radio station Bas-FM since 1999. The stations serve the Basarabeasca district in Moldova. An earlier version of this article appeared in Russian on the Bas-TV website.

Translated by Tetiana Merega.