Nine years after Romania joined the European Union, its outward appearance is Western, liberal and democratic. Yet the reality for thousands of children living on the street paints a starkly different picture.
In 2007, Romania joined the European Union. It became a member of the largest and wealthiest trading bloc in the world. Recent insights into child poverty, however, present an uncomfortable paradox between wealth and inhuman degradation. The West is again being reminded of old problems and enduring tragedies that modern Europe would rather forget. Romania’s child poverty levels have never been higher, and the grim days of Ceausescu continue to cast a long shadow over a deeply troubled society.
Entry to the EU was a triumph for Romania. Unrestricted access to 27 European states promised a new era, a golden dawn of enterprise and opportunity. Education, healthcare, and trade would revolutionize the economy. A step out of the darkness, isolation and poverty of the Communist period, membership of the EU was a bright new chapter in Romania’s history. But what has changed since Romania joined the EU and how much does Western Europe understand about what goes on in the newest addition to its prestigious club?
The horrific realities of Romania’s orphans only came to light after Ceausescu was removed from power in 1989. The sheer number of orphans in the care of the state, some 47,000, became apparent, and the West’s reaction was one of horror. For these institutionalized children violence and sexual and emotional abuse were rife. Beatings from older children and staff were routine. Access to education was almost non-existent, and malnourishment was the norm.
The result was several lost generations of uneducated, mentally scarred children released into a society in which they had no part to play. Drug abuse, isolation, and poverty awaited them. When they grew into adults, they were abandoned and forgotten, left on the streets to fend for themselves. And there many of them remain. They are broken shells of human beings and serve as a chilling reminder of a past that most Romanians would rather forget.
Under the streets of central Bucharest, with its boulevards home to international corporations and a nascent middle class, live hundreds of unwanted children and teenagers in underground sewer systems. In light of Romania’s accession to the EU, what has changed for these children?
Why does Romania have so many Orphans and Street Children?
The shockingly high number of orphans is due to the Communist government’s policy of population growth. To stimulate the economy, Ceausescu encouraged birthrates by banning abortion and contraception and taxing families without children. In place from 1966 to Ceausescu’s death in 1989, this policy mandated that women be routinely tested for pregnancy at their workplaces and face questioning should pregnancy fail to lead to childbirth. The result was a glut of children that neither parents nor the state, could support. Instead of fueling an economic boom, these children became the state’s burden. A generation of children were either condemned to barbaric orphanages, mental asylums or turned out onto the streets.
Romania’s Plight Back in the Limelight
After a flurry of interest in the orphan crisis in the 1990s, including an Oscar-nominated documentary, the world’s media feel silent. In 2015, new video reports surfaced of the old sewer communities. Up until recently, several hundred called these tunnels home, most of whom are addicted to solvents or harder drugs like heroin. Resorting to crime and/or begging, the only family these children have are each other, and the grown men who supply them with drugs.
With recent reports of Bucharest’s sewer children by the likes of America’s ABC and the UK’s Channel 4, attention turned back to a long-standing problem, one ignored by Romania’s authorities for decades. Some months after the reports in 2015, the Romanian authorities cleared out the sewers following the pressure of the world’s critical gaze. Hundreds of children were thrown out of their makeshift homes with no apparent contingency for their survival. As of this writing, there are no underground sewer children, but these children have been displaced and moved to other locations – doorways, parks and train stations. There are 20,000 children in this precarious position, hanging onto existence – right under peoples’ noses, and yet outside of society.
This highlights the cultural problem that plagues Romania today. When the international spotlight shines on the issue, the authorities are keen to act. When the foreign journalists go home, the children are left ignored. The crisis is perpetuated by ineffective child services, a lack of government programs and a cultural attitude that simply doesn’t care.
The Tragic Irony of Romania’s New Dawn
In the early 2000s when Romania was lobbying to be accepted into the EU, it was made a requirement that Romania meet a certain standard in its child services. It would not be possible for a forward thinking, democratic union to tolerate as a member one who had tens of thousands of institutionalized orphans and many more living on the streets. Reform was introduced including foster parenting, officially registering children with birth certificates, providing healthcare and bringing orphans into the education system.
The EU paints this as a success, stating that Romania, once the worst offender for child poverty, has “has gone from having the worst system in Europe to developing one of the best.” The EU rapporteur for Romania, Baroness Nicholson, went as far as to say “Countries like Ukraine, which are struggling with child protection issues, can perhaps learn something from Romania’s experience.”
New Shiny Façade, Old Problems
A roaring success, thanks to the effort of EU standards and funding, is what they would have us believe. But the statistics and firsthand accounts tell a very different story. The EU’s own figures state that over 40% of Romanians face poverty or social exclusion, higher than any other country in Europe except Bulgaria. The reality is that child poverty has steadily worsened since it joined the EU in 2007.
In 1990, the year the communist regime was toppled in Romania, there were 47,000 thousand children under the care of the state. In 2002, those figures reached 88,000 and in 2010, two years after it became a member of the European Union, that number remained at a staggeringly high 62,000. The number of orphans increased after Ceausescu left power and child poverty has worsened since joining the EU.
Amidst the fanfare of economic development, membership of the EU and construction of shiny shopping malls, Romania’s old problems remain. It should not come as a surprise; the orphans are a testament to the fact that a society so besieged by corruption and ineffective bureaucracy is not easily changed. Cultural change is generational, and for Romania’s orphans and street kids, there is simply not enough time.
EU money is no silver bullet, nor is the free market. The legacy of Ceausescu looms large, and the unraveling of the Communist system that failed generations of children has barely begun.
Perhaps most importantly, the self-preservation that characterizes many countries of the former Soviet Bloc is still engrained into the Romanian psyche, affecting attitudes of ordinary people, bureaucrats, and politicians. The result is collective apathy towards poverty and an abdication of responsibility. Post-Ceausescu society is still too broken to demand reform from its government.
European children’s charity Open Doors states that beyond the issue of an ineffective, and still developing children’s services system, the wider issue of poverty most prevalent issue. Nearly half of Romanian’s population is rural, and 70% live in poverty. With little access to education, healthcare and employment, poverty is the norm. Illiteracy, death from preventable disease, crime are all rife. As bad as the homelessness and degradation of children is in the capital Bucharest, it thankfully affects a minority of children, albeit a large one. Step into the countryside, it is simply the way life is.
What progress can Romania claim to have achieved?
Despite its self-adulation, the EU has provided funds where there were none. They have demanded standards where there were none. They have provided trade opportunities where there none. But the success of reform is limited, if not negligible. The problems run far deeper, and child poverty is merely a symptom of a bigger problem: a country that is simply not able to accommodate the most vulnerable in society. If there’s one thing that this crisis highlights, it is that compassion is luxury – one bought with economic development. As living standards increase, Romania may hope for a shift in how it treats it’s most vulnerable, but for this generation of lost children, it is too late. For them, Romania’s membership of the EU remains a cruel paradox.