Romania’s Street Children

By: Christina Andronache



            Ten years ago, on December 15, 1989, Father Laszlo Tokes protested the injustices of the Romanian government.  Hours later, Father Tokes’ protest would turn into a revolution that would change the course of history in Romania—a communist satellite of the Soviet Union.  In a lot of ways, the future looked brighter for Romania, but as with everything that’s good, there’s the proverbial “silver lining.”  Yes, Romania seemed to be moving gradually to a free market economy, but other grave problems that did not exist before started to arise soon.  Romania started seeing its first street children.  Before, the totalitarian government of Ceausescu had kept all these children locked up in the infamous Romanian orphanages, but once the Revolution started, the children, maybe feeling a bit of the revolutionary euphoria, broke the gates of the orphanages and took to the streets.  However, never having had any parental guidance and with very limited school teaching, sniffing glue, pimping for prostitutes, prostituting themselves, and living in subway stations became these children’s pastime—or means of survival.

            To understand where these children suddenly came from and to understand why they have become limited to being street children, one needs to look at Romania and its political situation.  These children are not a spontaneous result of the Romanian revolution; rather they are a lingering  and surviving hallmark of the Ceausescu regime.


Brief history of Romania

Romania during the WWII

In the years leading up to WWII, Romania sought security in an alliance with France and Britain, and joined Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the Little Entente.  Always having had close ties with France, Romania was isolated from the European community after the fall of France in 1940.
          Shortly after, in June 1940, the USSR occupied Bessarabia which had been taken from Russia after WWI.  To aggravate the situation even further,  on August 30, 1940, Romania was forced to cede northern Transylvania to Hungary by the order of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and in September southern Dobroja was given to Bulgaria. These changes created mass hysteria and on the advice of one of his councilors, the king called the General Marshall Ion Antonescu.  In order to appease the masses, General Antonescu convinced the king, Carol II, to abdicate in favor of his 19 year old son Mihai.  Soon thereafter, General Antonescu allowed German troops to enter Romania and in June 1941 Antnescu joined Hitler’s anti-Soviet war. Antonescu’s aim was to recover Bessarabia and this was accomplished in August 1941.  During this time, 40,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz (Randolph). However, throughout WWII, anti-Nazi resentment spread among the Romanian soldiers and people who had witnessed the atrocities of the Antonescu goernment.  Hence, as the war went badly and the Soviet army approached Romania’s borders, a surprising national consensus was achieved. On August 23, 1944, Romania suddenly changed sides, captured 55,000 German soldiers who were in Romania at the time and declared war on Nazi Germany.  By October 25, the Romanian and Soviet armies had driven the Hungarian and German forces from Transylvania. The Romanian army went on to fight in Hungary and Czechoslovakia (Costin).


The Communist Era

            Before 1945,  Romania’s Communist Party had no more than 1,000 members and had little influence in the political and social schemes.  After the war, however, the Communist party’s membership soared to over one million due to direct backing from Moscow. The Soviet-engineered return of Transylvania greatly enhanced the prestige of the left-wing parties, which won the parliamentary elections in November 1946.  Just a year later, again with the backing of the Soviet Union, Prime Minister Petru Groza forced King Mihai to abdicate.  The monarchy was abolished and a Romanian People’s Republic was proclaimed.

                Soon thereafter, a period of state terror ensued in which all the pre-war leaders, prominent intellectuals and suspected dissidents were imprisoned and interned in hard-labor camps. Peasants who opposed  the integral plan of the communist party to collectivize the agriculture were also thrown into these labor camps.  In 1948, the Communist and the Social Democratic parties united as the Romanian’s Workers’ Party. On June 11, 1948 a law on nationalization was passed paving the way for the state control of the country’s industrial factories, mines and businesses which came to represent ninety percent of the country’s production by 1950.  At the same time, a new constitution mirroring the Russian model was introduced, thus pre-emptying the intense period of the Russification of Romania.  By 1953 even street names were being changed to honor Soviet figures (Dinu).

                Romania’s loyalty to Moscow continued until the late 1950’s when Romania started to gradually distance itself from the Communism proscribed by Moscow.  When Soviet troops were withdrawn from Romania in 1958, street names where once again changed, but this time to reflect the Roman heritage.  After 1960 Romania adopted an independent foreign policy under two national communist leaders, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and his protégé Nicolae Ceausescu, both of whom had been imprisoned during WWII.  Under the leadership of Gheorgiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu a national Socialist state was flaunted.

                Unlike other Warsaw Pact countries, Romania was allowed to deviate from the official Soviet line.  While it still remained a member of the Warsaw pact, Romania did not participate in joint military manoeuvres  after 1962.  Romania, unlike China or Yugoslavia, never broke with the Soviet Union.  Even when ordered by Moscow to help in the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Ceausescu refused. He even  condemned the invasion and publicly deemed it a “shameful moment in the history f the revolutionary movement,” earning him praises and economic aid from the West.  In 1975 Romania was granted MFN status by the US which yielded more than one billion US dollars in US-backed credits in the decade that followed.  When Romania further aggravated the Soviet leadership by condemning the invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games despite a Soviet bloc boycott, Ceausescu was officially decorated by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

                Although Ceausescu’s early foreign policy was successful, his domestic policies were at best chaotic.   Ordinary citizens were kept in check by  the Ministry of the Interior’s security police whose informers were also ordinary citizens.  The personal liberty of Romanians was further infringed on by a 1966 law which made abortion illegal. Childbirth became nothing more than another of the nations’s great industries.  Women were required to have at least four children and the use of contraceptives was forbidden. Routine gynecological Party checks were carried out on women in an attempt to stop illegal abortions (Kligman).

                By the 1980s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the West no longer appreciated Ceausescu’s efforts to oppose the Soviet communism.  The U.S. no longer gave money to Romania and it withdrew its MFN status.  However, Ceausescu continued to spend large sums of money to make Bucharest a showcase socialist capital.  At the same time, Ceausescu decided to pay off all his foreign debts. Thus, food started to be exported and bread rationing was introduced in 1981.  Rationing on eggs, flour, oil, salt, sugar, beef, and potatoes quickly followed.  Thus, after 1980, it became increasingly difficult for families to support their “mandatory” four children (Dinu).


1989 Romanian Revolution

            As the Soviet bloc was disintegrating and the world was watching the collapse of one communist regime after another, Romania’s dictator, Ceausescu was still going strong. On November 20, 1989, during a six hour address to the 14th Congress of the Romanian Communist Party, Ceausescu denounced the political changes  sweeping across Eastern Europe and vowed to resist them (Deletant).

            However, the spark of the revolutions of Eastern Europe would soon ignite in Romania too. On December 15, 1989 Father Laszlo Tokes spoke out publicly against Ceausescu in his small parish. The following evening people gathered outside Father Tokes’ home to protest his removal from his post. By   9p.m., the gathering turned into a noisy demonstration.  When the police began to make arrests, the demonstration was a full scale revolution that was spreading through the major Romanian cities (Deletant).

                Miscalculating the masses once again, on December 21, 1989, Ceausescu decided to address a mass rally in front of the Central Committee building in Bucharest, to show the world that the workers of Romania approved of the military action against the “hooligan” demonstrators in Timisoara.  Factories around Bucharest dutifully sent their workers to applaud Ceausescu’s speech; however, when they arrived they were told that Ceausescu changed his mind about making the speech.  A few hours later, Ceausescu once again wanted to make the speech.  When Ceausescu finally began addressing the crowd of 100,000 from the balcony of the Central Committee building, youths who were being held back by three cordons of police started booing.  Ceausescu stopped in the middle of his sentence when he heard the “murderer” shouts.  With a 100,000 people gathered in the same place, the Romanian police could do very little to stop the pandemonium that had erupted (Deletant).

For a week, the meek, submissive, fear-stricken Romanians, took to the streets and told the world that something new had to replace the oppression they have been enduring and nothing less than Ceausescu gone would appease them. On December 24 Ceausescu and his wife were tried by an anonymous court, condemned and promptly executed by a a firing squad (Deletant).


Romania between 1990-1997

                Many people now argue that reformers in the Communist Party had been preparing a coup d’etat against Ceausescu and his family for at least six months when the December 1989 Revolution forced them to move their schedule ahead.  When Ceausescu fell, the National Salvation Front was ready to take over under the leadership of Ion Iliescu, a former Communist leader.

            Assuming power right after the first hours of the December revolution, the FSN claimed to be the caretaker of the government until a new government would be elected.  It also said that it would not field any candidates. On January 25, however, the FSN declared that it would run in the upcoming elections (Iliescu). This prompted mass demonstrations both for and against the FSN amid charges of neo-communism.

            On May 20, 1990 the election race was won by Ion Iliescu of the FSN who had gotten 85% of the vote.  The FSN also won control of the National Assembly and Senate. In the meantime students, communism’s most staunch opposers, occupied Piata Universitatii to protest against the FSN’s ex-Communist leadership. On June 13, protesters started burning police headquarters. In desperation, Iliescu called into Bucharest the miners of Jiu Valley for a counter-riot. The miners promptly arrived and with sticks as their only weapons, managed to beat and kill many of the Iliescu protesters. Now by force,  Iliescu once again won Romania’s leadership (Deletant).

            The miners returned once again in September to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Petre Roman, whose free-market reforms had led to worsening living conditions.  Roman’s departure was a serious setback for Romania’s economy and reform process.

            In October 1992, Iliescu was re-elected president, leading a coalition government under the banner of the Party of Social Democracy.  Iliescu’s government was slow in making reforms and integrating Romania into the free market of the West.  Thus, despite a period of relative political stability under Iliescu, most Romanians remained disillusioned.  Although abortions had been re-legalized in 1990, and freedom of speech and travel re-instated, this served as little compensation for the vast majority. In 1993 subsidies on food, transportation and energy were scrapped prompting inflation to spiral out of control (500 to 600% inflation).  Declining living standards, rampant inflation, high unemployment, and corruption in a government perceived by most as a neo-communist bureaucracy, was the primary angst of the people that went to the 1996 elections (U.S. Congress).

            Sluggish reforms and pre-election spending in late 1996 by Iliescu’s neo-communist brigade had led to the halt of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending programs.  Also, during the seven years Iliescu was in power following Ceausescu’s fall, foreign investment in Romania remained thinner than in any other eastern European country—attracting just over $2.5 billion dollars.

Thus, in 1996 it was a bitter and disillusioned electorate that went to the polls.  They voted overwhelmingly for a new government led by Emil Constantinescu, the leader of the reform-minded Democratic Convention of Romania.


Romania Today

            Since early 1997 Romania has been a country on the move.  Romania has gone through many economic and social reforms, the majority of which have not made any significant impact on the poor people’s lives.  Poverty is still a major gripe—over 1000 street children squat in Bucharest’s train stations, the number of children infected with the HIV virus continues to rise, prostitution is yet to be curbed, and the average monthly salary remains at no more than $80 (U.S. dollars).


From Ceausescu’s Orphans to Today’s Street Children

            In 1966 Ceausescu’s regime made abortion illegal and each family had an obligation to the state to have at least four children.  In a world where 10 eggs, 4 kilos of flour, 1 kilo of meat, and a pound of butter per person was the norm for a month’s supply of food, many Romanian families could not possibly support more than the required minimum quota of children, and that too was done with great efforts.  However, with abortion being illegal, many parents could only keep their first four children and put the rest in orphanages.

Also, during Ceausescu’s reign, frequent malnutrition and low standards of living caused the life expectancy rate to be significantly lower than in most developed countries.  This led to many parents dying at an early age.  Hence, many relatives, being as poor as the parents that died, had no choice but to put the surviving children in orphanages.  Moreover, the malnutrition of mothers during pregnancy and the lack of routine pregnancy drugs/medical attention led to many babies being born with birth defects.  These unfortunate children would be immediately put into orphanages not only because they would require expensive and unavailable medical attention, but also because they would be a burden on the family later on in life by not being able to support themselves and the family.

Many other children would end up in orphanages because of abusive family situations.  During the communist regime, drinking oneself to oblivion was a way of life when nothing else was available. When bread was scarce, Russian vodka was not only readily available, but it was also very cheap.  Although a way of life, vodka led to many abusive family situation.  With no institutions or laws to protect the children, Romanian parents were not only allowed but were entitled to beat their children—in their attempts to discipline them.  Hence, many terrified children would take to the streets and wonder far from home.  Being too young to remember how to get back home and without their parents making a concerted effort to retrieve them, these children would be found by Ceausescu’s police and immediately placed in state orphanages.  During Ceausescu’s regime, people were not allowed to linger in the streets.  Thus, if the police came upon a drunk individual this individual would immediately be imprisoned and punished for loitering.  Punishments could include corporal punishments or money deducted from the person’s salary. In the same vein, if children would be found on the streets, the police would put them in an orphanage until some family member would make an effort to claim them. In most cases, however, the family members of these children would not be too concerned about the disappearance of one of their children.

Thus, it is not surprising that Romania is  mentioned without fail in conjunction with the word “orphanages.”  Along with hard living conditions and a nationalist anti-Soviet Communism, orphanages are the hallmark of the Ceausescu dictatorship.  Maybe, most disturbingly, was that these orphanages were not a safe haven for these children.  In Ceausescu’s Romanian orphanages, medical care was lacking, hygiene was nonexistent, food and warmth were in short supply.  Orphanages were the “skeletons in the Romanian Socialist State’s closet.”  While Ceausescu was spending enormous amounts of money building the model socialist capital, Romania’s orphanages were multiplying.  Ceausescu failed to see abandoned children as real people and did not think they would be important to Communism’s survival. Thus, not wanting to waste money on such an inconsequential matter such as the personnel of these orphanages, the children were mistreated and often abused by the impatient staff (Delaney).

Romania’s dramatic revolution of 1989 caught the imagination of the world.  In the aftermath, TV images of neglected infants in barracks-like state orphanages, their metal cribs lined up end to end, pricked the conscience of Westerners, many of whom streamed into Bucharest in search of children to adopt.  Hence some children were adopted by the horrified foreigners.  However, the vast majority remained behind.       

Yet, for a little while there seemed to be hope even for those children who weren’t adopted and remained behind in Romania. Soon after the revolution offers of financial aid also poured in from the IMF and other lending institutions to help Romania transform its economy into a free-market system. The IMF, however,  suspended all loans to Romania after June 1990 because of Romania’s failure to implement economic reforms.  Facing an economy whose inflation rate was 300%, Romania’s officials (1994) admitted that they had more pressing problems than dealing with Ceausescu’s legacy—Communism’s orphans, today’s street children (Davis).

Therefore, many of the children that were imprisoned in Romania’s orphanages took to the streets after the 1989 Revolution.  Various estimates put their numbers from several hundred to 10,000.  Romania’s forgotten children come alive in groups around the subway stations when the adult world goes to sleep. It takes time and patience to get to know the characters who are bound together by a complex dynamic in which the oldest and the strongest are the rulers.  Louise Branson, an American reporter says that

It is a terrifying experience to follow Dan into the hole he considers home. The door is a manhole on the edge of a park near Bucharest’s Gara de Nord subway station. He squeezes through and descends on iron rungs into a dark, stifling and dirty space. Huge, warm pipes along one wall make hissing noises. Rats scuttle past his feet. The stench of urine and excrement is overwhelming. ‘Here it is,’ he shrugs. It is difficult to read any emotion on his young face. Dan and three other ragged boys, all in their mid-teens, have spread torn cardboard boxes on the floor.  They are grateful to have this warm place for the coming winter. In other tunnels under the Romanian capital, homeless children have even managed to rig up electricity for makeshift lights.


                Many of these young street urchins sniff glue to pass time. The sniffers smear solvent inside a plastic bag, then place the opening over their mouths and inhale.  Some of these glassy-eyed children can be recognized by the burns on their faces that they get from the solvent touching their skin.

Outside of the occasional visit from the police, these street children are abandoned by Romania’s society.  They sleep in the cracks of the subway station and, for money, they either beg, steal, sell glue, or prostitute themselves. Many of the older children buy glue solvent for 50 cents a bottle and sell it in smaller amounts to younger children.  Some of the stronger ones control entry to the warmer entrances of the tunnels, sometimes exhorting payment.  Some pimp for some of the prostitute girls (Davis).

Although tough on the outside, many of these children are aching for some sort of a human touch. One reporter says that

younger children appear desperate for human contact—even with strangers. Nine-year-old Ciprian, for example, holds a foreign visitor’s hand tightly and calls her ‘Mama.’ He is one of the few kids from the tunnels not visibly high on glue solvent.  Ciprian shows a cut on his head where, he says, an older boy had hit him. He tells of having run away from his Bucharest home at the age of eight after his mother died and his father turned to alcohol. As Ciprian huddles with the visitor over a heating vent at the entrance to the train station, the ragged boy is suddenly accosted by a cleaning woman, who hits him with a broom and berates him for ‘bringing shame on our country to foreigners.’ He responds with a torrent of foul language. But a few minutes later, when the woman is out of sight, the bravado subsides and the child bursts into tears.


Their vulnerability and need for human contact is only understandable.  From a very early age, these children have known nothing but abuse.  If they were part of Ceausescu’s hallmark orphanages they were underfed and abused.  Once on the streets, they are further abused by the people that abandoned them in the first place. Rather than taking the blame themselves for abandoning them, these people not only abuse the street children, but also—hypocritically enough—place the blame on the children themselves for ruining Romania’s image.

The majority of these street children have various diseases—ranging from tick-borne encephalitis, to syphilis, to HIV and AIDS.  There was a syphilis epidemic in Romania in late 1997, prompting calls yet again for prostitution to be legalized in the country where many of the prostitutes are street children.  When the legalization of prostitution was being debated, many of Romania’s leaders argued that street children are an area which cannot be taken care of at the moment. “When you are converting to capitalism you have to kick start the more prosperous areas of the economy,” said one official. “You can’t afford to worry about poor people until later. That is the way capitalism works.” Therefore, it seems that the burden of Romania’s street children falls upon the international community (Davis).

Though many international children organizations are currently in Romania, there are just not enough of them to be able to take care of the rising number of street children.  Since the 1989 Revolution, families with children have done worse than pensioners from Eastern Europe’s transition.  The reason is that wages plus welfare have fallen sharply in real terms, hurting families, while pensions have generally stayed high enough to keep pensioners out of penury.  The United Nations Children’s Funds has looked at 18 countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and it argues that pensions have kept ahead of the average wage in ten countries—of which Romania is part—since 1989.

Pensions have kept their relative value while most other benefits have declined because post-communist countries wanted the fifty-something generation to retire early, and used generous pensions provisions to bribe them to make way for new generations at work. In contrast, children’s welfare is dependent on real wages, which has fallen everywhere.  Hence, many families are simply not able to support their children on an average monthly salary of eighty dollars, so many children take to the streets to find other means of supporting themselves (Davis).

Another factor that has worsened the plight of families with young children is the rise in unemployment.  The newly elected government has decided to clean up Romania’s state industry sector by closing down loss-making factories and coal mines.  In autumn 1997 the oil sector was undergoing major restructuring with the creation of the new Societatea Nationala a Petrolului (Petrom) to replace the oversized National Oil Company set up by the previous government.  Petrom’s restructuring plan would mean that it would only keep 39,000 of its 60,000 staff. These cuts have inevitably created mass unemployment in these regions which, in turn, has had an upward effect on the numbers of street children in these particular regions.

Although the facts seem very grim, there seems to be hope for Romania’s street children.  In contrast to Ceausescu’s or Iliescu’s  leadership, the newly elected government is doing a great deal in helping the situation.   The government has launched its Strategy for Protection of Children’s Rights—brainchild of the newly-created State Secretary for Child Protection, Doctor Christopher Tabacaru. As Romania’s youngest minister, he seems to be ideally qualified.  He is a pediatrician and formerly ran a charity for abandoned children.  His plan—encouraging foster care and adoption, aims to reduce the 100,000 children in institutions and the 10,000 in the streets by thirty percent. 

Furthermore, it seems possible that the rise in number of street children is a direct reflection of Romania’s economy.  It is extremely difficult to transition from a state-owned economy to a free-market economy.  In comparison to the other Eastern European countries Romania was set back by the seven years of  the neo-communist leadership of Iliescu.  The newly elected government has been trying hard to improve the image of Romania to Western investors and so far it seems to have achieved a great deal.  Just in the summer of 1998, Romania’s president was offered to speak before the Joint Congress—an  honor that only a few other foreign leaders have received. Also, Romania is now part of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Danube Commission, Interpol, the Wassenaar Group, the Australia group, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Forum, the Central European Free Trade Association, and most importantly it is an associate member of the European Union.  The newly elected Romanian government has been lobbying hard for the acceptance of Romania to the European Union (U.S. Department of State).

Moreover, the government of Constantinescu has been making huge efforts in reducing the fiscal deficit and it was able to reduce it by 3 percentage points.  The inflation rate has also been going down.  Also, with the shifting of more and more percentage points to the industrial (33% Products: oil manufacturing, machine building, mining, construction materials) and agricultural (23% Products: corn, wheat, potatoes, oilseeds, vegetables, live stock) side of the economy, Romania is making huge leaps towards improving its economy and the standard of living of its people which inevitably means reducing the number of street children.

Thus, although the Ceausescu regime has left behind an infamous hallmark—the orphans—things seem to be getting better.  With a government that is making a concerted effort to be part of the European Union and NATO, it is inevitable that the plight of the Romanian street children will be alleviated in the near future. Romania has not been trying hard to integrate itself with the rest of the Western world. It has gradually diverted trade from the Soviet Union and it has created trade with Western Europe and the U.S. I believe that if these reforms will keep up, Romania should be able to avoid the second generation of street children.