Stuck in the middle, Moldovan migrants strive to make ends meet

June 16, 2020

Anatol Lașcu is a Moldovan labour migrant who goes back and forth between Ireland and his home country. Photo: Ion Buga / UNDP Moldova

COVID-19 crisis has recently also hit Moldova, a lower-middle income country. But with approximately one quarter of its citizens earning a living abroad, either permanently or temporarily, its effect paints a wider stroke.

Among the most affected are circular migrants: workers who circulate back and forth between home and a host country, dividing their lives into a ‘stay-at-home season’ and a ‘working season’. With the COVID-19 outbreak, many workers found themselves stuck in one of these seasons: either in Moldova, without the possibility to return to the jobs abroad that feed their families - or in a foreign country, unable to work, send money home or be with their loved ones.

Take the case of Cristian, 31. Despite having a Bachelor’s degree in business administration, for 11 years he spent more time abroad than he did in Moldova, slowly saving up for a small family business – a night club. He had a construction job in Germany, and would rotate between three months working there, then one month at home taking care of his business.

But the COVID-19 crisis turned his plans upside down.

"At the end of March, I returned home for my usual one month. When the state of emergency was declared, I thought I would redirect my efforts to develop my business. But now, I can't open my business in Moldova, and I cannot go to Germany, even though I still have a job there, waiting for me," he says.

Across Moldova and its diaspora, many like Cristian find themselves in a similar limbo. In 2019, around 246,000 Moldovan migrants were working or ready to live abroad on a temporary basis. This is about 27 percent of Moldova’s labour force.

With an average gross salary of about €370 in 2019, one of the lowest in Eastern Europe, Moldova has been highly dependent on remittances. Migrants sent US$1.9 billion back home in 2019, representing about 16 percent of that year’s GDP. This makes Moldova one of the top 20 countries in the world most dependent on remittances.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), out of 272 million international migrants globally, nearly two-thirds of them are labour migrants. They are responsible for sending over US$689 billion home every year.

IOM estimates a quarter of Moldovan households would be below the poverty line if they did not receive remittances. With 17 percent of all migrants indicating they have already stopped remitting under COVID-19 circumstances, this potentially means 37,500 Moldovan households will fall under the poverty line – almost 109,000 people.

Luckily, some workers abroad have been able to keep their jobs. Anatol Lașcu, another Moldovan now in Ireland, mastered the skill of making pizza at a restaurant. The movement of food service to delivery means he still has work. But for Anatol, the problem is not getting to return home. For a while, he will only be able to see his family online.

"I used to see them every three months. But I receive my salary, and post offices are operational, so I can at least send money home," he says.

Most Moldovan migrant men go abroad for construction, agriculture or service jobs in countries like Russia, Israel and EU countries, while women go for domestic care and service-related jobs in Italy, other EU countries and Israel. The pandemic left many of them in precarious work conditions, particularly irregular ones - without access to a stable income, health services, or unemployment or social benefits in the host countries.

Since 2015, with support from the Government of Switzerland, we at UNDP Moldova have reframed our perspective on migration – instead of thinking of it as lost human capital, we now look at it more as a development opportunity, particularly in rural areas. By involving migrants in local development processes through Hometown Associations, we have been able to re-orient migrants’ remittances from private consumption to local service improvement projects. One fifth of Moldovan communities actually have migrants supporting development initiatives with their remittances, like improving street lightning, pedestrian infrastructure and road maintenance.

But with the impact of COVID-19, the World Bank projects a 20 percent decline in remittances to low- and middle-income countries, and almost 28 percent in the ECIS region. This will affect the Moldovan economy.

We have just started the socio-economic impact assessment of COVID-19, done on behalf of the United Nations in Moldova, so that we can support the recovery. It’s clear that the lockdown here in Moldova has already put tremendous strains on the Moldovan labour market, has hit local businesses hard due to declined sales, administrative restrictions, restricted access to supply materials and undermined distribution networks and such, and has affected vulnerable groups, including those heavily relaying on remittances. And that lack of remittances is not just affecting individual families, but freezing community development work as well.

Once all travel restrictions are lifted, migration will continue. We will continue focusing on making the most of migration for the development of the country. That means working with local communities to support their economic recovery path by channeling diaspora support and helping migrants to make productive use of their skills and knowledge here on the Moldovan labour market. We don’t know what the future of movement will look like, but we will continue work on strengthening opportunities back home.

Update: Read more on UNDP's Call to Action in Moldova.