Transnational families – a phenomena that is becoming all too common globally and notably in Eastern European countries such as Moldova and Ukraine, arises when one or more nuclear family member (typically a parent) relocate to a foreign country in search for a better life. Despite the separation imposed by borders, these families remain united, sharing support and resources. Typically, the decision to migrate is not only fuelled by financial need but by the pursuit of better living standards for the entire family. The decision to migrate, though seemingly autonomous, often stems from dire circumstances, leaving few alternative options. The absence of adequate social safety nets drives vulnerable families to seek social security through labour migration abroad. In this manner, transnational families are the primary agents of their own social protection, with dependent members, particularly children, as beneficiaries.
The Migration Partnership Facility (MPF)-funded, “Children Left behind by Labour Migration: Supporting Moldova and Ukrainian Transnational Families in the EU” (CASTLE) project aims to explore the unique challenges faced by transnational families, specifically Moldovan and Ukrainian parents migrating abroad and their children staying behind. The project’s objective is to support the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine in improving their child protection frameworks and migration and mobility practices, considering the social and legal impacts of labour migration on these families.
This blog, culminating from the CASTLE project’s research findings, seeks to spotlight the stories of these families, humanising their experiences. It aims to illustrate that the decisions to migrate are multifaceted, extending beyond mere financial considerations, with families often choosing migration as a means to address critical needs and gaps.
A painful but successful journey
Preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the project interviewed the Ukrainian household headed by Krisztina and Oleksiy, along with their children Anastasia (15), Natalia (14), and Robert (8). The family shared an apartment with Oleksiy’s parents in Mukachevo. Krisztina worked in a textile factory, while Oleksiy was employed by a cable factory.
The family’s lives changed for the worse, when at the age of 9, Anastasia fell ill, developing kidney disease, complicated by vasculitis. Following two months of treatment, the complexity of her case led to a transfer to Kyiv, where she was accompanied by her mother. Krisztina returned home only after two years, with the family reuniting occasionally. Oleksiy departed for Hungary so he could be close to Anastasia in case of an emergency, where he worked for about two years.
The family’s hopes were buoyed by the availability of a kidney transplant in Belarus, prompting Oleksiy’s return for the procedure. Anastasia finally received the kidney transplant, but needed ongoing treatment to ensure that the kidneys were not rejected by her body, which led to frequent trips to Kyiv for checkups and yearly visits to Belarus. Krisztina and Oleksiy took turns accompanying their daughter, incurring high costs. The support provided by fellow mothers at Kyiv hospitals was pivotal, availing critical information that facilitated the successful transplant application. At the time of the project interview, Anastasia was still reliant on dialysis.
Financial difficulties persisted before and after the transplant, stemming from the costs of extended stays in Kyiv, where Kirsztina could only stay at the hospital during the day. With only the costs of the hospital treatment covered by the state, the cost for medication was solely incurred by the family which put a further toll on their finances. Accessing state support proved difficult, especially coming from a small city. When it was granted, it was inconsistent and based on many follow-ups. Oleksiy and Kirsztina repeatedly sought reimbursement for medication costs, which was inconsistently provided as well, with one large sum eventually refunded after some time.
The families’ pursuit of reliable assistance continued, with Oleksiy’s sister extending a hand in helping them to seek support from NGOs prior to the transplant. Unfortunately, her efforts were in vain, as requests were turned down due to limited funding. Unrelented, the family sought NGO support post-transplant, but were once again rejected, with the NGOs clarifying that the scope of their focus was on patients awaiting transplants. With no other options, the family relied on their own limited resources to fund Anastasia’s medical treatments, drawing on Oleksiy’s work migration, which was supplemented by crowd-funding from Facebook groups and television, and the generous efforts by a former classmate of Oleksiy who organised a school fundraising campaign. Modest yet steady support also came from the Hungarian church, where Krisztina was a member. Despite these efforts,
Oleksiy’s unstable job situation and the subsistence-level earnings of both parents, has once again, prompted the family to consider migration as a solution for their precarity. Nevertheless, the thought of leaving theirchildren behind weighs heavily on the conscience on Oleksyi and Krisztina.
In 2010, Ioana, a nurse, and Anatol, a construction engineer, along with their children Arina (17) and Bogdan (10), made the decision to migrate from the north of Moldova for economic reasons, in large part due to the shortage of job opportunities. After working in the Russian Federation for three years and subsequently in Ukraine for two years as a site coordinator, Anatol sought an opportunity in the Czech Republic following visa liberalization for Moldovan citizens. He obtained a legal residence permit for work purposes and currently works at an electrical wiring factory.
In 2018, Ioana, invited by a friend, took up work as a “badante” (care worker) in Italy, which paid better than her husband’s job. She decided to migrate only for a period of two months, leaving the children in the care of their maternal grandparents. The emotional distress caused by leaving the children behind, led to the decision for one parent to always remain with them.
With Ioana unable to break her six-month contract, they decided that Anatol should return, and in 2019, Ioana came back to Moldova while Anatol returned to Prague for a planned three-month stay. However, due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was unable to return for eight months, working for only 2 months during this period. He finally returned to Moldova, and with the promise of a higher salary, Ioana returned to Italy to work for the Italian family that had previously employed her. She had agreed to work for an initial period of three months, but faced a strict lockdown after two months, preventing her return for more than a year and half. During this time, the elderly women she cared for received daily food parcels from local authorities due to being in the high-risk category. Not needing this support, the family that employed Ioana allowed her to keep the excess food, which she sent back home to Moldova. With Anatol unemployed and the children home all day, such provisions alleviated the financial strain on the family.
A large family on the road
Irina, a confectioner, Ihor, an electrician, and their six children (two biological and four foster children) are from the town of Bucha, Ukraine. Ihor worked in the construction industry across the EU since 2014, including in Poland, Austria, France, and most recently Germany, where he resided during the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war.
In March 2022, Irina and the children left Ukraine for Germany to reunite with Ihor. They were initially hosted in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, at a hostel for Ukrainian refugees, which also offered one meal a day, after being picked up at the border crossing by a team of volunteers. She remained there for a week until Ihor sent money for their journey via a bus to Hamburg. Due to financial constraints, when the family arrived in Germany, they shared a one-room apartment flat with two other Ukrainian men, sleeping on mattresses placed on the floor.
Within a month, conflicts arose with Ihor’s flatmates, which led to Irina and the children returning to Romania. Posting on a Telegram group for Ukrainians in Cluj, Irina was able to utilise the government’s 50/20 program, securing housing through a supportive landlord who was willing to wait for government payouts. With Irina unable to work with six minor children to care for, the family struggled to meet daily needs. Ihor frequently sent food parcels from Germany, which were largely sourced from social canteens for migrants there. He also remitted money to Romania once a month. Concerned about losing accommodation once government support ends, Irina contemplates returning to the western part of Ukraine, believing that it is the only solution for financial security if the rent costs remain high in Romania.
Managing as a single migrant mother
Nadejda and her three-year-old son, Alihan, navigated life by themselves in a mid-sized town in Moldova with support from an NGO providing daycare for working single mothers. The program, which allowed them to make a living, was discontinued during the COVID-19 crisis. In response, they relocated to a smaller town, hoping that their savings would cover rent until the crisis ended. However, their plan did not materialise, leading Nadejda to make the difficult decision for work abroad. Initially, Alihan stayed with Nadejda’s sister who had young children of her own, but the arrangement proved challenging. Eventually, Nadejda legally entrusted her child with a friend who also had young children, whose husband was abroad. Nadejda plans to continue working outside of Moldova until she saves enough money to purchase an apartment in order to alleviate future rent concerns.
Fortunately, misfortune has brought us together
"I don't want candy, I want you to stay home," was what Natalia said to her father, Nectarie, who had to leave her regularly for work abroad. Nectarie, returning once a year for a brief two-week holiday would shower his daughter with gifts, an only child. Natalia’s mother also worked abroad, and she remained at home in Moldova under the care of her grandparents. Natalia, not yet 5 years old, wrestled with the emotional turmoil of both her parents being away.
Nectarie, 42, hails from a village in the norhtern part of Moldova. Like many of his peers, he has led a life "on the road". Between 2009 and 2015, Nectarie shuttled between Moscow, where he had a well-paying job, and the Republic of Moldova, where his daughter resided. Confronted by hard times, Nectarie, who made countless sacrifices, opted for a job in the EU, moving to the Czech Republic, Belgium, and finally Romania in 2019. The hardships of life eventually led to irreconcilable differences with his wife, and they decided that divorce was the best option for the family. He has since tried to be a more active father for his daughter, Natalia, and has grappled with the challenges of co-parenting across borders.
As Natalia entered adolescence, however, she has been unable to cope with being the child of divorced migrant parents, with the strain leading her to attempt suicide. Shaken by the incident, Nectarie moved to Romania, bringing Natalia along with him, in order to create a conducive environment for her well-being and education.
Now settled in Romania, Natalia doesn't blame her parents for their absence but she wishes life had been different. She now concentrates on her passions - volleyball and drawing, dreaming of becoming a famous fashion designer. In Romania, her mother spends extended periods with her despite lacking citizenship. The events that led to Natalia’s suicide attempt have made the parents reconsider their relationship, leading them to remarry after 17 years, with the decision to live together as a family in Romania.
In these stories, it becomes evident that there is a tremendous load placed on families to weigh the benefits and costs presented by migration. Formal support structures often prove to be inconsistent or insufficient, while communities also have their own limitations, compelling families to make tough choices that have exceptional implications on their lives.
Interestingly, migrant members of a transnational household are often not perceived as family members, particularly in the context of care responsibilities in their home countries (Degavre and Merla, 2016).The irony is that migration by these family members is most often motivated by the need to provide for family members back home. The stories unveiled in this blog underscore how families in exceptionally difficult circumstances, who are constrained by scarce resources and limited social support, employ innovative, dynamic, and at times, radical strategies to navigate and manage their precarity and enlarge their resource environment (Levitt et al., 2023). The adversities that they face disrupts the traditional social protection strategies for families, compelling them towards novel solutions, transcending their previous preferences, imaginaries, and even social acceptability. Consequently, they find themselves pushed towards the brink.
In light of these special difficulties faced by transnational families, the CASTLE project calls for and advocates for the recognition of transnational families not as a constellation of individuals but as cohesive units. These families are not passive recipients but are active agents in their own social protection, seeking, producing, and accessing resources that are critical for their survival and resilience. Only by taking their agency and cohesiveness into consideration, will transnational families be properly protected and supported.
This blog was written by Áron Telegdi-Csetri and Viorela Telegdi-Csetri, the Research Manager and Project Manager of the CASTLE Project, respectively.