Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Migration's Flip Side

From the IHT:

In this poor but proud farming region, where many of the small wooden houses have no electricity and people still read by candlelight, nearly every third home sits empty. Their occupants have gone to pick mushrooms in Ireland.

When Laima Muktupavela left more than three years ago, she moved into a dusty three-room house near Dublin with 11 other Latvians and picked mushrooms from 6 a.m. to sundown. The farm's owner forbade the Latvians to wear gloves and the mushrooms quickly turned her fingers black. She sautéed mushrooms for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She earned about 215, or $250, a week - more than one and a half times the monthly minimum wage back home - and splurged on a new gray wool coat.

Back in Latvia, her four children felt abandoned. Her 16-year-old daughter, Anna, sent angry letters in envelopes filled with her baby pictures. Her partner, who is now her husband, met someone else.

Tormented by the prospect of permanent exile, Muktupavela returned to Latvia. She wrote a book about her experiences, "The Mushroom Covenant," which tapped into the national fear about the growing exodus of Latvians to Ireland. It became a best seller.

"There is hardly a family left in this country who hasn't lost a son or daughter or mother or father to the mushroom farms of Ireland," said Muktupavela, an ebullient 43-year-old.

She pointed to a vast field peppered with abandoned houses, their occupants departed to the handful of European Union countries - Ireland, Sweden, Britain - that opened their borders to the bloc's newest members when they joined in May 2004.

Freedom to cross the EU's borders unhindered was a reward of membership that natives in this Baltic country of 2.3 million people aspired to after 50 years of Soviet occupation.

But as other EU countries grapple with whether to admit inexpensive laborers from Eastern and Central Europe, fearful that it will undermine their social standards, the case of Latvia shows how migration can exact a heavy toll on the country they leave behind.

While there are no official statistics, Latvian officials estimate that 50,000 to 100,000 people have emigrated over the last 18 months, as many as 25,000 of them to Ireland. In the latest high-profile departure, Latvians watched with horror last month when the Olympic biathlete Jekabs Nakums announced on television that he was leaving to go wash cars in Ireland.

The exodus of economic migrants from Eastern Europe to their wealthier neighbors in the West has been a growing phenomenon since EU expansion last year. But the trend has been particularly pronounced in Latvia because the country's average monthly minimum wage of 90 lats, or 130, is the lowest in the 25-member bloc, while price increases since accession have been highest here.

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