Children Left Behind

15.12.2010, 18:29
Social orphanhood also exists in other European countries, but its Ukrainian particularity lies in the size of this social affliction

Children Left Behind is the name of a pilot project of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) whose purpose is to study the problems in transnational families of Ukrainian labor migrants. People have been travelling for various reasons since the dawn of time. Thus, some aspects of this phenomenon are universal in their nature. But modern migration in the context of globalization is linked to new traits and problems. These issues are studied by the IOM. Experts opine that the most significant Ukrainian problem today is that of so-called transnational families, in which children and their parents, who are labor migrants, are forced to live in different countries. Notice that the term “national families” itself is mostly used in the western sociology, whereas in the countries from whence this phenomenon originates it is semantically linked to the category of orphanhood: “social orphans” in Ukraine, and “European orphans” in Poland and Romania. The particularity of the Ukrainian phenomenon lies in the number of social orphans. As reported within the framework of the Children Left Behind project, the Ministry of Family, Youth and Sports estimates that about 200,000 minors live without their parents because the latter are working abroad (data for 2008). At the same time the study emphasizes that in Ukraine there is no nationwide database for this category of children so far. Eurostat also has relevant information for 2009: Ukraine remains the European leader in the number of migrants. The Ukrainian immigration to Italy, the major EU destination for Ukrainian migrants, became an object for the research of the IOM.

According to the official information of Italian sources, 174,129 Ukrainian citizens reside legally in Italy and form the fifth-largest foreign community in the country (Immigrazione: Dossier Statistico 2010, Edizioni IDOS, Roma 2010, p. 13). However, the official statistics don’t reflect the real presence of Ukrainians in Italy, as a significant number of them live there illegally. The estimates of Ukrainian experts fall between 400 and 600 thousand people (On the Crossroads. Analytical materials of the complex research of the Ukrainian labor migration processes (edited by I. Markov), Lviv, 2009 p.31).

This difference can to some extent be explained by the nature of the work that Ukrainians do in Italy – they serve in private houses and look after elderly people. Italian specialists are now talking about a real “ethnicization” of this employment niche because of the significant number of Ukrainians present in it. At the same time, according to the information from the Italian Center for Studies of Social Problems (CENSIS), 77 percent of foreigners working for households are in Italy illegally.

The structural particularity of the Ukrainian migration in Italy is determined by the specifics of their work. Women make up 79.4 percent of migrants (Immigrazione: Dossier Statistico 2010, Edizioni IDOS, Roma 2010, p. 125), the highest rate among the foreign communities in Italy. The average age of the Ukrainian women in Italy is over 40. As a rule, those women have children and usually leave them in Ukraine. Thus, the problem of children “left behind” appears.

The IOM project Children Left Behind, subsidized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was carried out in 2009-10 in several secondary schools in the small town of Terebovlia, Ternopil oblast, and the villages of Verkhni Petrivtsi and Nyzhni Petrivtsi in Chernivtsi oblast (these two regions have the highest numbers of migrants in Ukraine). Consequently, the IOM published the results of its research called “The consolidation of the potential of local authorities in Ukraine for the improvement of migration, social and educational policy in favor of children, women and local communities.” The research has four parts: “Migration and development between Italy and Ukraine: the way to decentralized cooperation,” “The history of Ukrainian women in Italy,” “Transnational families: teaching tips,” and “The final report.”


Based on the materials and interviews, collected by the IOM researchers, a certain typology of the Ukrainian female labor migration emerges. Most women are the heads of their families and were forced to make radical decisions (not only regarding divorces, though this is also a common problem). “No matter how much I worked, it didn’t bring any results. I realized that I couldn’t change anything and started looking for some other way out, not just extra work” says Tetiana, one of the interviewees. It is significant that the Ukrainian women consider it their main task not only to provide for their families, but also to ensure the quality of their lives. Among the ways to achieve this the first place is taken by investments into their children’s education – specialized secondary education and higher education. The emotional background that goes along with the women’s migration is a fear for their children and a sense of guilt towards them. In those women’s opinions, they, first of all, lack subjective conditions in the country of their new stay to be able to reunite with their children. For example, Oksana explains that “in Italy I don’t work within my profession, but my child is a doctors’ daughter, she was brought up in a certain environment, she goes to a good school, she has her friends.” But the main problem, as the IOM research emphasizes, is caused by the women’s lack of any clear plans, including for how long they want to work abroad: initially the labor migration is seen as temporary, but for a number of reasons it is prolonged and a lot of women stay in Italy for 10 years or more. As a result, the psychological drift of the children, raised without their mothers, deepens. “By earning a little more money we lose our children, we have to decide, what’s more important,” says Olha. It’s evident that the decision about migration should not be emotional and spontaneous, motivated by rationals such as “a lot of women from our village left, am I worse?”, “I want to do something for my kids.” Instead it should be thought through and made after having considered real family needs and plans. In cases involving teenage children, the IOM specialists encourage parents (mothers) to consult them before making the final decision about moving abroad. The necessity of this decision has to be realized by both sides.


One migrates from their family, their place of residence, their country. If migration processes are closely related to the socio-economic and political status in one’s country of the origin, the mass character of migration from Ukraine testifies to structural problems in the country, and it’s impossible to change the situation without solving them. The IOM analysis clearly demonstrates that as long as the complex structural reforms and economic modernization are not realized, the low standards of living will remain and will result in migration in search of better economic conditions and higher wages. Today a Ukrainian mother goes to work in Italy to earn money for her children’s education, but this money often finances not the education system, but the corruption in it. Moreover, tomorrow her son or daughter with a university diploma might be unemployed as well, and then the migrant mother’s efforts and self-sacrifice will be wasted. The IOM document underlines the importance of intergovernmental cooperation between Italy and Ukraine, particularly regarding the signing of a bilateral agreement on social security. At the same time, a need for decentralized cooperation is emphasized.

According to the information of the Italian Central Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), 69.2 percent of Ukrainians are located in five regions of the country: Campania (the capital city is Napoli), where Ukrainians take the first place among the foreign communities; Lazio (the capital city is Rome); Emilia-Romagna (the capital city is Bologna), and Veneto (the capital city is Venice). Some of the regional authorities initiated projects on regional cooperation with Ukraine. In the region of Emilia-Romagna they approved a regional program titled “A long-term strategy on cooperation with Ukraine for 2007-2013.” Within its framework they opened a “working table” for interaction which coordinates the work of different agents (local authorities, NGOs, businesspeople, etc.), interested in cooperation with Ukraine. Since 2006 the region of Veneto has been carrying out a project “The development of social cooperation and cooperation in the service sector for the attraction of youth from problematic Ukrainian families.” Another project in Veneto has a more economic focus: “The organization of a chain of zoo-technical enterprises for the medical certification of animals and animal products.” This project has been working since 2005 on the initiative of a group of businesspeople from the Italian city of Padua interested in importing pork from Ukraine. Despite its local character (it is based on several pig farms in the Kyiv region), this project has contributed a lot to the general harmonization of Ukrainian legislation in the area of food export and its approaching EU standards.

Special attention should be paid to the activity of the recently created financial institution Unidea, which is based on Unicredit bank. So far it is the only institution in Italy which implements projects directly related to the Ukrainian migration. Today there are two Unidea pilot projects. Within the framework of the first one (realized with the participation of the Milan-based NGO Soleterre), “the support of transnational parenthood and socio-economic reintegration of migrants coming back to their home land” has led to two consultation offices being set up in Milan and Lviv. Among other services, they provide information about employment, legal aid, and social and psychological support for migrants and their families. Another project, called “The platform for development of social enterprises in East European countries,” is oriented to the professional training and employment of nurses (for elderly people) from Poland and Ukraine. All these projects include the notion of so called co-development, which is a basis of the new EU migration policy: migration can and has to contribute to the economic and social development of both countries.


The central problem, uncovered by the IOM project, concerns Ukrainian schools and their new functions in the context of the social phenomenon “children without parents.” The methods, developed by the specialists of the psychological, social and cultural integration department of the IOM (taking into account the recommendations of the students of postgraduate studies at the Borys Hrinchenko Kyiv Municipal Pedagogical University), are primarily focused on the prevention of social exclusion of labor migrants’ children. On request of the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science they published the Ukrainian version of “Transnational families: teaching tips,” with the aim of its distribution among secondary schools teachers and the organization of the teaching process involving the labor migrants’ children. The teaching tips include methods of working with children that are clearly differentiated depending on their age. Different methods are subject to one aim — developing in the children the ability for reflection and self-assessment, giving them effective tools for the comprehension of reality, and self-comprehension in it, as well as the understanding of their identity and their roles. The psychological work with the kids has to be done through “creative” activities, primarily through verbal self-expression. For example, children are invited to develop an associative chain: “migration is…”, “migrants’ children are…”; to imagine themselves in a different country with a different language, culture, customs; to place their own history into a new context: who am I? what’s my place in the world? what are my values? what can I tell other people? Gradually, they should form a story from the word “migration,” which will be the mechanism for understanding their personal and other people’s experiences.

This method is also striking because it can and should be used not only with kids but also with adult Ukrainians. Numerous problems in our society originate from the lack of reflection and self-assessment: people don’t adequately perceive reality because they don’t realize themselves or what happens to them. At the same time, the absence of empathy (the key term of the whole “Teaching tips” handbook) which is the inability to feel other people’s psychological state, often chokes the feeling of responsibility for our own actions, without which the long-awaited freedom risks turning into anarchy… So, all Ukrainians (and not only migrants and their children) should think over the questions/psychological activities from the “Teaching tips” of the IOM: What causes migration, what are its aims and consequences? Why do women often migrate from Ukraine? How does it affect Ukrainian families? What about the Ukrainian society? Where do the Ukrainians go? What employment opportunities do they find in the new countries where they stay? What are the formal and real women’s rights in Ukraine and in the world? How is a migrant woman perceived by Ukrainian society? How is she perceived in the new country where she stays?

Olena PONOMAREVA, Ph.D. University of Rome La Sapienza

15 December 2010 The day