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E.g., 06/21/2024
Moldova Seeks Stability Amid Mass Emigration

Moldova Seeks Stability Amid Mass Emigration

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Moldova is a small country facing mass emigration. Confronted with political instability, collapsing incomes, and rapidly rising unemployment, people began emigrating from Moldova on a large scale in the first half of the 1990s. Because hardly any opportunities are available for legal migration from this small state situated between the Ukraine and Romania, most of this emigration has been irregular.

The Moldovan Intelligence and Security Service has estimated that 600,000 to one million Moldovan citizens (almost 25 percent of a population of some 4.4 million) are working abroad, most illegally. Only around 80,000 are estimated to be in their destination country legally. Human trafficking is a prominent feature of this enormous outflow.

This emigration, the dominant feature of the country in the new century, has had serious political, economic, and social consequences. In fact, the future of the country in large part depends on the role Moldova's migrants play in future development.

Background: The Republic of Moldova

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union (USSR), the former Soviet Republic of Moldova was recognized as an independent state in 1991. From the outset, this small landlocked country, situated between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east, has been in a deep economic and political crisis. Even before formal independence was declared in August 1991, a tiny strip of land to the east of the river Dniestr with some 630,000 inhabitants, where Russian and Ukrainian speakers predominate, had declared its own independence as the so-called "Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic."

In the spring of 1992, a civil war broke out over this attempted secession, but it was quickly halted by the intervention of the Russian Army. Since then, international mediators have been struggling to solve the dispute through federalization of the country and by getting the remaining Russian units to leave the territory of Transdniestria. By 2002, a constitution had been drafted, which should eventually be put to a referendum in both parts of the country. Meanwhile, the deadline for the Russian troop withdrawal has been put off to the end of 2003.

The political problems in the 1990s were mirrored by a sustained economic crisis. The break-up of the USSR resulted in the loss of export markets for intermediary goods that are used only as input for the manufacturing of other goods, i.e., component parts of other items. Also exported are agricultural goods, both processed and unprocessed (especially wine). Salaries collapsed and jobs disappeared. By the year 2000, the average per-capita income had fallen by 60 percent and only in the last few years has moderate growth resumed. In 2002, average annual income per person officially amounted to only €417, just 1.8 percent of the EU average ,which makes Moldova easily the poorest country in Europe.

The resulting wave of unemployment has forced many qualified technicians and professionals to go abroad to take up illegal employment far below their qualification levels. The jobless rate, officially at only two percent of the workforce, is now estimated at over 25 percent. Today, monthly salaries in Moldova average €40-45, while farmers rely mainly on subsistence farming. With an average consumer basket costing about €70 per month, some 80 percent of the population is officially under the poverty line. Due to the low level of salaries and the continuing brain drain, there are significant shortages of professionals in some areas – for example, over the last decade, some 45,000 teachers have gone abroad and have been replaced, in part, by education students.

Even though Moldova has experienced moderate growth over the last three years, for the majority of the population, the economic situation has further deteriorated and poverty has increased. There is a lack of delivery on political promises, coupled with the absence of the rule of law or its implementation, crowned by widespread corruption. Especially in the countryside, public utilities such as electricity and water supplies are frequently interrupted or dysfunctional. Many people rely on soup kitchens and humanitarian aid.

The widespread urge to escape from the dismal economic conditions in Moldova appears to be overwhelming. According to a survey of the younger population in 2001 by the Center of Sociological, Political Science, and Psychological Investigation and Analysis (CIVIS), a local non-governmental organization, 52 percent of teenagers want to go abroad to get a job. Responding to a separate question, fifteen percent of the teenagers surveyed would like to emigrate permanently. One-third would like to go abroad for this purpose for several years. One-fifth of them said they would like to go abroad to work for several months.

Emigration from Moldova

The economic crisis in the first half of the 1990s prompted many Moldovans to seek opportunities abroad. Today, nearly a quarter of all the country's citizens have jobs in another state. Due to the clandestine nature of these migration flows, however, no official statistics exist. In interviews with state officials, migration experts, and returned migrants, the following countries were mentioned as the main destinations (in decreasing order of importance): Russia, Italy, Ukraine, Rumania, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Israel. Geographical distance, possibilities to work, and language similarities (Russian and languages with Latin roots are preferred) all seem to play a role. Some 200,000 Moldovans are thought to be working in Russia, mainly in construction. Another estimate puts the number of Moldovans in Italy at 200,000. Meanwhile, members of the 160,000-strong Gagauz minority (a Christian community in the southern part of the country whose language is related to Turkish and who enjoy substantial autonomy) are drawn predominantly towards Turkey.

The Romanian Option

Moldovan is a dialect of Romanian, and between the two world wars, Moldova was part of Romania. After World War II, Moldova was incorporated into the Soviet Union for 50 years. After gaining independence in 1991, there was an intense discussion in Moldova about whether the country should seek reunification with Romania.

Political leaders at the time decided against forfeiting their newly gained independence, but special relations with Romania have persisted. Up until July 2000, Moldovans could still travel to Romania with simple identity cards, without the need for a passport. This has been changed since Romania has aspired to become a member of the European Union. The EU has insisted on stricter controls on the country's future "external" borders, that is, those not shared with other EU states. In exchange for implementing stricter border control regimes, the EU granted visa-free travel to Romanian citizens starting from the beginning of 2002.

Moldova, on the other hand, is still on the EU's list of countries whose citizens require a visa for entry. In addition, with the advancement of the EU enlargement process, all central and eastern European candidate countries have introduced visa requirements for Moldovan citizens. The exception is Romania, where Moldovans are still free to travel, but must now be in the possession of a passport.

Due to their close historical and cultural links, Moldovan citizens have also had the opportunity to acquire Romanian citizenship if they can demonstrate that their grandparents lived on Romanian soil before 1918 (when Moldova became part of Romania). Most of these people, therefore, have dual citizenship, even if unofficially. It has been estimated that in the years leading up to 2001, 300,000 Moldovans acquired dual citizenship. This confers certain economic advantages in terms of taxes and cross-border trade. Since 2001, the acquisition of Romanian citizenship has become even more desirable, as it allows the aforementioned visa-free travel to the European Union. In early 2002, there was a rush to obtain Romanian passports, and one source estimated that as much as half of the Romanian-speaking population of Moldova may already have one.

For political reasons, the Romanian citizenship option for Moldovans was suspended late in 2002, but the program is expected to resume shortly, as Moldova has now passed a law on dual citizenship. Moreover, some 140,000 Moldavian citizens hold Russian citizenship, 60,000 others have Israeli citizenship, and several tens of thousands have Ukrainian citizenship.


The capital city of Chisinau's literally hundreds of money exchange offices, in a country with essentially no tourist trade, indicate the importance of remittances to the Moldovan economy. The standard currencies exchanged in all these offices are U.S. dollars and euros, but most offices also have rates for Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian currency. Some also exchange the currencies of Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, and, less often, a few other European countries.

This inflow of remittances makes itself apparent in urban living standards that often appear higher than the official statistics. Most of the money inflow is used for consumption or the acquisition of apartments, with little going into investment. The high cash inflow, because it is spent almost exclusively on imports, has led to years of low inflation (below 10 percent) and stable exchange rates, although prices are cyclical (higher in the winter, when money from cyclical work abroad arrives and agricultural goods become scarce). Many returning migrants buy apartments in Chisinau – in 2002, the prices for apartments shot up by 59 percent.

There are widely varying estimates of the scale of these remittances. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) figures, official transfers (mostly through Western Union, whose offices can be found everywhere in the country) amounted to $223 million, or 15 percent of GDP in 2001. However, it is likely that these official transfers represent only a fraction of the total amount of remittances. In interviews with returned migrants and family members of current migrants, the "courier system" was usually named as the preferred option for transferring money. Such money couriers (trusted people who physically carry money across borders) operate from destination countries with large Moldovan migrant communities. The main rationale for using money couriers instead of wire services is the high fees charged by the latter. Commission fees at Western Union vary between four and 22 percent, depending on the amount of money transferred. They also require legitimization (an official ID card or passport) for amounts exceeding €1,100.

In contrast, charges for courier services amount to one to three percent of the cash transferred. Moreover, there are also transfer services for goods, with trucks delivering goods from destination countries back home for pick-up by designated beneficiaries. Popular goods for transfer are clothes, baby supplies, electronic devices, and cars. While it is hard to quantify the scale of these transfers, total (official and unofficial) remittances are estimated by some to be as high as twice the official GDP.

Trafficking of Women

It is widely known, both inside Moldova and abroad, that the country faces an acute problem of trafficking in women for sexual exploitation, a practice that involves serious human rights violations. The exact number of these women, who according to non-governmental organizations are tricked and sold into prostitution, remains unknown, but some insights into the scale of the problem can be gained from official programs assisting returned victims of trafficking. Between January 2000 and May 2003, a total of 1,056 victims of trafficking were repatriated to Moldova with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration, according to the IOM counter-trafficking office in Chisinau. Most of the women had been lured abroad with false job promises and then had to work under life-threatening conditions in brothels in Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, and Albania. A few had also returned from western European countries.

Women are typically recruited through "tourist companies" or "employment abroad agencies" (some of them even with official licenses) that violate the law. Relations are established through personal contacts or newspaper ads. Women are then deceived and tricked into working as waitresses or barmaids, but are later abused, sold, and enslaved. Women are recruited mainly in the countryside, where they are first paid some $100 to come to Chisinau. They are later sold abroad for $300. The price goes up along the way, and when they are sold from Bucharest, the price is about $1,000. Many of the women are trafficked to and through Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo, with Timisoa in Romania being the main transit point. As detected cases show, women are "ordered" (one recent case concerned an "order" of 50 women for bars in Istanbul) and promptly delivered on demand.

Little is known about the organizational structure of these trafficking rings. Groups work together loosely and treat women as "commodities." It is unlikely that groups recruiting and selling women in Moldova can exert any control over them in the destination countries. However, there is clearly a chain of cooperation, from source to transit to destination countries, as part of the tactics to force women into submission and prostitution. Threats against the victims' families back home are one such tactic. Thus, information on family members (names, addresses, etc.) is passed on from Moldova to the traffickers at the destination country, who can use this information to blackmail and threaten trafficking victims. Conversely, information and orders to carry out threats against the family back home can also be passed the other way from the destination country to Moldova.

On a note related to trafficking and other illegal activity, while there has been practically no significant immigration to Moldova, in recent years the country has emerged as a transit country for illegal migration to the West. The lack of control over the country's external border with Ukraine in Transdniestria leaves about 200km of uncontrolled and, in effect, open border. No figures are available on how many people find their way through this permeable area and continue onward to the West. In other parts of the country, between 4,500 and 6,000 persons are apprehended annually at the country's external borders.

Refugees and Asylees

Until 1999, Moldova had hardly any legal or administrative provisions with regard to refugees and asylum seekers. It was only in November 2001 that the country acceded to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its later protocol. The Law on Refugee Status was finally adopted in July 2002 and entered into force on January 1, 2003. Every year, a few hundred asylum seekers claim refugee status in Moldova, most of them from Chechnya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Domestic Political Consequences

Mass migration from Moldova has had a remarkable demographic impact with serious implications. Because most of the emigrants are in the younger age group, the demographic balance in Moldova has shifted to the older generation. Among this generation, many are still adherents of the Communist Party. They remember the "good old days" of the Soviet era as a period of high transfer payments from Moscow and generally better standards of living. Thus, the drain of the younger generation has decisively contributed to the election victories of the Communist Party at the national elections in 2001 and again in the municipal elections in May 2003.

As a result of the recent elections, since 2001, the foreign policy orientation of the country has swung back towards Russia, while at the same time maintaining the rhetoric of favoring European Union integration. Moreover, the new communist politicians do not seem to view the emigration of the young (who do not vote for them anyway) as problematic. In the words of one official, in view of the dismal economic situation, "emigration" is better than "revolution." In this light, it is unsurprising that no systematic, official attempt has been made to court the Moldovan diaspora and persuade them to return.

Today, Moldova is the only European country with a ruling party that still calls itself communist, and where new Lenin statues are erected.These backward-looking political developments have been encouraged by the massive emigration of the younger and most entrepreneurial population of the country to the point where mass emigration has become a serious impediment to economic and political modernization. Given the sheer size of the Moldovan diaspora today, the development of the country will in large part depend on the future role of these migrants.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author only, and not those of ICMPD as a Vienna-based intergovernmental organization or of its member states.


This article is based on a fact-finding mission to Moldova in May 2003, in the course of which interviews with officials, migration experts, and irregular migrants were carried out.


(1) Prof. Andries, President of the Academy of Science of Moldova, 19.5.2003
(2) Pater Klaus Kniffki, priest of the Roman Catholic Church in Chisinau, 19.5.2003
(3) Gheorghe Rusnac, Rector of State University of Moldova, 22.5.2003
(4) Adam Levy, Consultant at IOM Moldova, 21.5.2003
(5) Matti Sidorof, Public Relations Officer of OSCE Mission to Moldova, 20.5.03
(6) Ion Stavila, Vice-Foreign Minister of the Republic of Moldova, 20.5.2003
(7) Iurie Roshca, President of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, 20.5.2003
(8) Ivan Borisavljevic, Head of Office of the EC Delegation to Moldova, 21.5.2003
(9) Serafim Urechan, General Mayor of Chisinau, 22.5.2003
(10) Simion Terzioglo, Program Coordinator at IOM Moldova, 21.5.2003

In addition, the following written sources have been consulted:

Center of Sociological, Politological, and Psychological Investigation and Analysis (CIVIS): "Study of Migration and Perception of Trafficking in Women Phenomenon among Teenagers and Young Women," Final report, Chisinau 2001.

Arnold Julianna and Doni Cornelia: "USAID/Moldova Anti-Trafficking Assessment – Critical Gaps in and Recommendations for Anti-Trafficking Activities," Development Alternatives, Inc., October 2002.

International Labour Organization (ILO): "Report on Trafficking from Moldova: Irregular Labour markets and Restrictive Migration Policies in Western Europe," Shivaun Scanlan, Consultant to ILO, May 2002.

International Organization for Migration (IOM): "Trafficking in Women and Children for Sexual Exploitation. Republic of Moldova," Chisinau, 2002.

International Organization for Migration (IOM): "NGOs in Combating Trafficking in Women in the Republic of Moldova," Chisinau, August 2002.

International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD): "Migration Management in Moldova," Final report prepared by the Secretariat of the Budapest Process for the Working Group on Moldova, Vienna, April 2003.

International Crisis Group, (2003), "Moldova: No Quick Fix," ICG Report No 147, 12. August 2003, Chisinau/Brussels, available online (PDF).

Jileva Elena (2002): "Visa and free movement of labour: the uneven imposition of the EU acquis on the accession states," Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 28, No. 4: pp. 683-700.

Levy Adam, (2003) "Migration and Remittance Flows in the Republic of Moldova," Report prepared for IOM Chisinau

Skvortova Alla (2001): "Moldova and the EU: direct neighborhood and security issues," in Kempe, I. and Van Meurs, W. (eds): "Beyond EU Enlargement." Gutersloh: Bertelsmann Foundation Publishers, pp. 104-124.

UNICEF/UNOHCHR/OSZE-ODIHR (2002), "Trafficking in Human Beings in Southeast Europe," ed. Barbara Limanowska, published by UNICEF, June 2002.

William R. Nelson Institute: "Trafficking in Women in the Republic of Moldova," Research conducted at the request of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), October 2002.