Welcome to the Romanian region that expects its residents to live and work abroad.

Key sectors of the European economies depend on mobile workers inside and outside the Union. This documentation is part of a project which combines data, narrative and investigative journalism to study the phenomenon of labor migration during a pandemic, by mapping outbreaks affecting European industries.

In the center of the northeastern Romanian city of Botoșani is a 1980s housing block, next to an awning for the country’s most popular beer, Timișoreana, and a loose plastic wall advertising a vodka brand, Voronskaya.

Mounted on its side wall are giant letters, in a bold font using a chunky 1990s style, which read ‘Complex Moldova’. Part of the “L” from the second word has peeled off, and fallen.

This has several meanings. 

To an English reader, Moldova is a complex region. This fertile land of fields and hills stretching across the River Prut was once a proud Christian Orthodox kingdom in the 15th century, which fought back Turks, Hungarians and Poles. Since then, its neighbors have divided, crushed, squeezed and fragmented the nation, reattached and broken it once more, until today, when it finds itself split between the Romanian Moldova, on the west side of the Prut, and large parts of the sovereign country Moldova, on the east side.

This name has a literal meaning: on this site, during the post-Communist period, was a shopping complex, the symbol of a transitional era, where individuals could set up their own businesses, sometimes in improvised buildings, free to trade independently of the state.

But there is a third meaning: Moldova has a complex—a problematic characteristic of this region, which applies to both halves of the fractured nation, and this is emigration. Its citizens have been leaving to western Europe, and continue to leave, and though this may bring financial advantages to those at home and abroad, such a rupture puts pressure on family bonds, confuses the people’s identity, and leaves a region with few skilled workers, and few of the young. In Botoșani, Romania’s remote and most northerly county, this complex is unmistakable.

Remains of the recent past, above a terrace in the central area of Botosani.

Take local resident Alex, who, at the age of 18, gained his driving license and was accepted for a job to work at a slaughterhouse in Anglesey, the most northerly and remote county of Wales.

When Alex was out celebrating this news with a friend, the first thing he asked was: “Are you coming too?”

Without thinking for a second, his friend replied “Yes.”

For some, moving to work in another country means weighing up pros and cons, making calculations, and taking time to explore the options, but for those like Alex, and many others from Botoșani, it is simple: a beer, a meeting, a question, an answer, and a plane ticket.

Emigration is as much a rite of passage, instinctive to its young, as gaining a driving license, or moving out of their parents’ flat. 

“People leave with tears in their eyes, because they like what they do here”

Cătălin Moraru is the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Monitorul de Botoșani, one of the few local print publications that has withstood the last decade, and continues to fight for survival. He has held this position for over two decades. 

“There is a saying that there is a certain moment when you need to leave journalism,” he says. “If you miss that moment, you’ll remain in journalism forever.”

Moraru recounts a story from his wife, who teaches at a high school which specializes in technology. A survey of the pupils in their last year of study asked them what they wanted to do after they left. Three-quarters said they wanted to leave the country.

Half of them already knew the place they wanted to work.

This exodus has hit the publication. Until recently, Monitorul de Botoșani had a printing house that could print 30,000 newspapers per hour, but had to give this up, because there was no one left to handle the machines. Meanwhile the editorial staff left to work in jobs such as truck driving or delivery for Amazon in Germany. “One journalist told me: ‘I have a salary of 1,800 euro (per month) in Germany, can you give me 1,800 euro?’,” adds Moraru. “I cannot respond to that. People leave with tears in their eyes, because they like what they do here.”

The wage disparity between the eastern fringe of the European Union and its core is so wide, they feel compelled to leave.

Like many cities in Romania, Botoșani’s urban center was remodeled by the Communists’ systematization plan from 1974.

This is felt by a lack of skilled workers—there is no one to call in Botoșani if a pipe is leaking in the house, or to repair an electrical fault, and, especially, if a car breaks down.

“To service my car, I have to call one week in advance,” says Moraru. “It’s like trying to book an appointment with a cardiologist.”

About a quarter of Botoșani county’s active population has left abroad to work, around 60,000 from 240,000, according to calculations made by the journalists of Monitorul de Botoșani. The official figures are “irrelevant”, argues Moraru, because institutions responsible for calculating the real numbers have no incentive to report the actual number. Money that comes from Bucharest and the European Union to support the regions is relative to population, so it’s in the interests of the authorities to keep this figure as high as possible, even if this is only on paper.

In Botoșani, as in the rest of Romania, the true impact of emigration is unclear.

One reason for the flight is that the region is in poor financial shape. Look at the statistics. Last year, the gross domestic product per capita in the county was 5.68 Euro—half that registered in the capital, Bucharest, while the average net salary was 2,501 RON per month (513 Euro), compared to 3,340 RON (684 Euro) nationally.

Botoșani is lagging behind the rest of the country.

Botoșani: Packaged for export

Every family in Botoșani contains a story about emigration. Dănuț Dănilă is a pensioner, who was born in 1952 in Răchiți, a village on the outskirts of the city. The first wave of departures came after World War II, and the years of drought that followed. The villages around Botoșani, including Răchiți, were struggling. “It was a poverty that went unmentioned in the world,” Dănilă remembers. “When we were children, there was mud that went up to our knees [in the streets of our village]. The houses were roofed with reeds.”

At night, Răchiți was pitch-black, as the first street-lamps did not appear until 1960, when Dănilă was eight years old. “We’d been using a gas lamp at home until then,” he says. “I looked at a bulb. ‘What is that?’ I thought.”

Dănilă says with conviction that “Communism saved us”. The authorities built a dam on the river Sitna, which had been flooding Răchiți. The new leadership, using a centrally-planned economic model, built roads to and through the county, and in the 1970s, constructed an abattoir in his village. This was a massive slaughterhouse for pigs, sheep and cows, employing 1,000, and another for poultry, employing 150. Animals were also raised in the surroundings. 

On the site of the former slaughterhouse in Răchiți, several smaller factories still work.

Răchiți became a meat-trading hub.

Georgeta Dănilă, who was hired at the poultry slaughterhouse in 1983, remembers lines of trucks arriving twice a week to be loaded with produce. The Communist authorities mainly exported the meat and meat products to the USSR, due to Botoșani’s proximity to the Socialist Republics of Ukraine and Moldova.

There was still meat for the locals, says Dănuț, who worked as an electrician at the slaughterhouse. At a time when cuts of meat and sausages were hard to find in stores in Romania, Răchiți did not have this problem.

“We didn’t miss any meat,” says Georgeta.

Visitors from other parts of the country also arrived at the factory gate to buy products directly. “People from Bucharest travelled all night by train,” adds Georgeta. “In the morning, they came to the market here, packed their bags and left with the food from here by the 11am train back. They bought 40-60 kilograms of meat, which would last them a long time.”

After the revolution in 1989, the slaughterhouse in Răchiți was privatized, and the new owner accumulated debts for ten years, and then closed. Georgeta Dănilă worked there until 1999, when she was pensioned off, before the firm shut. Her husband retired after 14 years at the abattoir. In the halls of the former slaughterhouse, smaller companies also perished in Romania’s transition period to a market economy in the 00s.

Thousands lost their jobs, and looked to make money on their own in agriculture, building on the traditions of the past. But they needed documents and huge capital to start a farm. There were many regulations, and the State did little to assist their progress.

“Before building a farm, an entrepreneur must spend more than half the necessary amount on documents,” explains the mayor of Răchiți, Florin Bulgaru. On top of this, rules state a farm must be outside a populated area, which means it needs to be in a remote location, but also have a platform, and sewage installed. “People do not have the energy for this business,” he adds.

The mayor of Răchiți, Florin Bulgaru, believes that the local people had no power to fight against the changing times.

Since the revolution, pastoral farming has slumped. The number of cattle in the county decreased from 193,700 in 1990 to 91,853 last year, according to the National Institute of Statistics. During the same period, the number of pigs fell from 192,400 to 42,730, and birds from 2.6 million to 900,000.

There used to be 1,000 cows in the village of Răchiți, says the mayor. Now there are only 20. People still keep pigs in the backyard, for their own food, and to help them raise money to keep their kids in school. “There are a few sheepfolds, but I don’t give them high hopes for the future,” he adds. “In about 15 years these will disappear.”

After the revolution, Dănuț Dănilă received back his family’s smallholding of farmland in Răchiți, where he and his wife kept animals, and drove a horse and cart.

His daughter was in college, in the capital of Moldova, Iași, and his son Ștefan was in high school, and they needed money, so they worked the land as hard as they could. 

“I didn’t know it was Saturday, it was Sunday, or if it was Thursday,” he says. “We were working continuously.”

Then Dănuț had problems with his heart, and Georgeta became ill. Five years ago, his son Ștefan left to work in construction in Austria. At first he only knew how to install double glazing, but later he learned other building skills.

When he is asked about whether his family members should stay away or return, Danut Dănilă says:

“What is there to do here?”

Still waiting for reconstruction

It is morning on the city’s main boulevard, Calea Naţională (the National Road). Plastic chairs, tables and umbrellas of bars litter the pavement, where packs of workers are laughing over glasses of syrupy sour-cherry liquor, vișinată, with masks tucked under their chins, or dangling from their ears.

The historic center is built around a wide square, named after Romania’s national day of unification — 1 Decembrie 1918 —, which is empty of shops, and of tourists. A single cafe is open, as well as an information center, and one clothing store. On the cobbled streets of terraces is a 19th century mix of the baroque and classical, alongside art deco, but most of their spaces are dark, leaving traces of businesses recently opened, and closed, such as ‘Times Square Coffee’, and the gutted rooms of the Social Democratic Party’s local headquarters.

The historical center of Botoșani was renovated a few years ago, but has never been filled with cafes and tourists, as in larger cities.

Nearby, only a few signs exist of something new, or different, or attempting to appeal to the young. A cafe serving sandwiches using the font of the logo of Facebook, named Facefood, heaves with crowds of high school kids, and, in an an alley by the side of a closed cinema, is a stencil on the wall of a kid in sunglasses and a vest, holding up a sign which reads in English: ‘Keep Dreaming’.

On Piața Revoluției – Revolution Square – stands the county and city halls and the Mihai Eminescu theatre, named after Romania’s 19th century romantic poet, who was born here. Once the cultural heart of the city, this landmark is now a building site, its dome decapitated, and its proud classical exterior stripped to bare bricks. In front, reaching up high, too high, is a pedestal, on which stands a small bust and torso of the city’s most famous son, out of reach, his eyes closed, and the turquoise drizzle of corrosion leaking down his metal face and chest.  

The „Mihai Eminescu” Theater in Botoșani has been under construction since 2014.
The local graphers occupy the city’s grey walls.

On the pedestrianized center at 9am, a long queue has grown at CEC bank, while at ATM machines, further lines snake along the paved streets, ignoring regulations on social distancing, for the right to queue trumps any other rules, or fears for safety. Few of the street-level commercial panels are occupied, as COVID-19 has killed advertising, yet one shows a flag of Romania, with the pages of an open Bible in the foreground, and a blue sky with clouds behind, inscribed with words in a friendly, handwritten font: ‘Happy are the people who fear God.’ 

Other sites to rebuild public institutions seem abandoned: on the facade of the County’s Employment Agency, a construction company has put up a banner that announces, in large capitals, that it is hiring workers.

A tiny plaque nailed on the wall to the side of the prefecture commemorates Mugur Călinescu, who graffitied “Jos Comunismul” (Down with Communism!) in 1981 on this spot in blue chalk, when the building was the County HQ for the Communist Party. At this site, his damning words are not inscribed, or recreated. Instead there is only cracking plaster and this sign to his memory, where some of its letters are already worn, and fading out.

“Moldova in general is forgotten, but Botoșani is the most forgotten county in a forgotten region,” says Catalin Moraru, editor of Monitorul de Botoșani.

In the 19th century, Botoșani was one of the most important cities in the Romanian Principalities, along with Bucharest, and Brăila and Iași, in today’s eastern Romania. The city was at the intersection of trade routes linking Austria-Hungary, Tsarist Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, and teamed with significant Jewish and Armenian trading communities. 

The Jews – who at the beginning of the twentieth century represented about half the city’s population – built the first steam-powered mills, the first clothing, footwear and candle factories, slaughterhouses and bread factories, and opened restaurants, cafes and breweries, according to former museographer Gheorghe Median.

After the Communists took over, the Israeli authorities paid cash to the authorities to “export” much of the country’s Jewish population, which hugely impacted Botoșani. From 19,000 Jews in the city in 1947, there are only a few families remaining today.

The central market is one of the busiest places in the city.

At the same time, the people of Botoșani started to work elsewhere in the country: to the west in the industrialized cities of Transylvania and the mines of the Jiu Valley, to the south in Bucharest, and to the southeast in the port of Constanța.

By the 1970s, the Communist Government was building factories in Botoșani, to employ residents in their home county, and capitalize on its tradition in agriculture. 

Once Romania entered the European Union and those in Botoșani were able to leave without worries, they left, adds Median. They went to where they saw opportunities. The preference was for the EU, and soon strong links were formed with countries such as Italy. In the Botoșani community of Dersca, for example, there are direct bus links to Italian cities, and local authorities have set up a day center for children whose parents have left. But they are not saying “no” to the UK, even with Britain’s recent withdrawal from the EU. Outside of Romania, they gather in small communities, in places such as Bangor, in north Wales, or Canterbury, in England’s southeast county of Kent.

Those who come back: “I hope I don’t have to leave again”

At a chain of restaurants where he worked as a chef in Canterbury, Botoșani-born Daniel Câșlariu brought about 35 people to work: friends of his, neighbours, friends of friends, and whole families, in a perfect example of chain migration. 

One of his brothers – whom Daniel initially recommended for a job as a dishwasher – has taken his place as a chef in the restaurant. But Daniel wanted to come back.

First, he returned in June 2018, but couldn’t find a decent job, so went to Italy, to make pizza in a restaurant. After eight months, his boss owed him 1,500 Euro, which he wouldn’t pay, so Daniel came back again.

Since then he founded an association, Grup Civic Botoșani, which raises money to build houses for extremely poor families in the county. Although some have suggested he should enter politics, he plans only to continue building houses.

“Since I’ve been home, nothing has changed in Botoșani,” he says.

Others have returned in recent months due to restrictions or financial problems related to the pandemic. During the state of emergency in spring 2020, 1,544 people in Botoșani were in quarantine, although most were those who had been working in seasonal jobs on farms in the west.

Until earlier this year, 21 year-old Alex processed chicken breasts for KFC in a slaughterhouse in Wales. But the factory closed temporarily due to a massive COVID-19 outbreak, and later he left, and returned home. Now he wants to finish his high school studies, and get a job. But this is not easy. 

“I can’t find anything,” he says. “It’s a little hard for me, especially with the pandemic. Now I want anything, just not to stay home, I’m starting to get bored. I don’t want to leave. I hope I don’t have to.”

Taking an evening walk through the city center, and looking up at the mass housing from the 1980s on Calea Naţională, we can see few lights on in the six-floor apartment blocks. About ten per cent of the flats are empty, according to an article published last year. However, few of them are for sale, and new blocks of flats are being built in the city.

“Those who have left continue to think about a future here,” says Catalin Moraru.

“Who will work the land?”

It’s a sunny October day in the cottage of the Dănilă family in Răchiți. Three generations are gathered at a table in the yard, where chickens roam free. There is talk of the weaknesses of the Romanian education system, of the pandemic, of those many who left, and of those few who remained.

Stefan’s cousin, Alexandra, is staying with the family. After graduating from college in Suceava and working for two years for a political party, she moved to Belgium in 2014. In Brussels, her husband works in construction, and she works in a brasserie. Now she is five months’ pregnant.

As she browsed the shops of Botoșani, Alexandra wondered how similar the prices were to those in Belgium, especially in the pharmacy and the market. At the DIY store where she looked for goods to renovate an apartment, she found out she can pay in Euros. When she made the conversion to lei, she realized that the prices are the same as in Belgium. When it comes to prices, Botoșani is part of the West. Alexandra is on maternity leave, and her doctor is in Belgium, where her husband will stay working on a building site, until the winter starts to bite.

Will he return to Romania for good?

“I said: ‘Let’s stay away for a while,’ because there’s still work,” says Alexandra.

“If it was up to her husband,” adds her mother, “she would return.”

“She has higher education,” puts in her uncle, “but where can she find a job for her level of study? What is there for her to come back for? What should she come back for?”

Last year the Dănilă family sold their last cow. Their land is still fertile, and is some of the best black earth in the world, but, as Dănuț asks, “Who will work it?” The old are tired, and the young are gone. Since then, he has given away the fields to an association, and now receives the corn that is grown there.

When we leave, Dănuț stands, and does not shake our hand, but waves.

“All that is needed to be said about our village has been said,” he adds.

The Dănilă cottage lies on a hill overlooking the river Sitna. From here, we can see unfinished houses with bright blue or red tiled roofs—the signs of recent prosperity. In the base of the valley stand the giant halls of the former slaughterhouse. Many of these have been renovated, as a dairy factory, a small abattoir and a distribution center, while others remain empty. 

On a flood plain next to the platform lies a football pitch. But there are no children, or teenagers playing here. Only a flock of sheep wanders along the grass, searching for fresh pasture around the goalposts.

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund.