The kick-off event of the YOUMIG project in Romania was held in the city of Sfântu Gheorghe between 29 and 30 May, 2017. It was organised by the Municipality of Sfântu Gheorghe, a YOUMIG project partner, in collaboration with YOUMIG partners from the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities (RIRNM, Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár).
Sfântu Gheorghe (in Hungarian: Sepsiszentgyörgy) is located in central Romania, in the predominantly Hungarian-speaking area of Szeklerland, and is the administrative center of Covasna (Kovászna) county. About three-quarters of the population of both the city and the county are ethnic Hungarians, while Romanians make up for a bit less than one quarter, a significant Roma community also being present. The city had a population of 56,000 according to the last census (2011), which represents a significant decrease as compared to the previous census (2002), when the local population still exceeded 61,000. Similarly, the county’s population also dropped, from 222,000 to 210,000, between the two censuses. The economic conditions of the region are less fortunate than the national average: the unemployment rate is higher, net earnings are lower, and in terms of per capita GDP the county steadily slipped down in the rankings between 2000 and 2011.
The region is heavily affected by emigration, even if the magnitude of the phenomenon remained below Romania’s national average in the previous two decades. As Tamás Kiss, demographer and YOUMIG project manager of the RIRNM team demonstrated in his previous research, the population decline of the city and the county is primarily due to emigration, which caused, among other things, a severe ageing of the population. Census data show, for instance, that the 20–49 age group in Sfântu Gheorghe decreased by 18 percent in the 2000–2011 time period.
Given that these circumstances of the city and the region induce various governance-related challenges, the two YOUMIG teams from Romania invited relevant local stakeholders, such as public servants and NGO staff dealing with local development, as well as researchers to share their experiences and views at the project’s local kick-off event. So, the first part of the event consisted of a migration forum, followed by a more informal discussion between the RIRNM expert team and the representatives of local institutions (e.g. the county level branches of the Statistical Office, the Directorate for Child Protection, the Education Inspectorate, and the Office for Employment, the Sapientia – Hungarian University of Transylvania), as well as several local NGOs.
The main topics debated were the general migratory trends characteristic of the city and the broader region, and their relationship to the local development relative to the rest of the country and to other countries. The participants agreed that the city has been severely affected by the migratory processes, and the emigration of highly-educated youth has been singled out as an especially serious issue. The main reasons have been identified as economic, most importantly the lack of well-paid job opportunities. Notwithstanding, most participants also agreed that the city has undergone rather spectacular development in the past decade, the aspects highlighted were the renovation of the old city centre and the local policies targeting the transformation of the city into a youth and child-friendly environment. Representatives of the local government also emphasized the efforts of the city to attract home young persons who migrated abroad or to other parts of the country, which include measures such as offering lots for building a new home and a plan to assist the returnees during the administrative process of resettling.
Another conclusion of the forum was that local authorities do not possess the relevant data about the migratory processes, and even available data about emigrants is generally unreliable. For instance, both the representative of the Directorate for Child Protection and the Statistical Office agreed that tracking the number of persons leaving the city is hindered by the fact that the emigrants fail to deregister. Even less is known about return migrants, all knowledge about them being limited to anecdotic evidence from the institutional representatives’ personal networks.
Finally, the topic of the Roma minority was also discussed at the forum. This community displays specific migratory patterns, consisting primarily of short-term work in Hungary and other countries. Just like in the case of other debated aspects, the conclusion was that our knowledge about this phenomenon is also less than satisfactory.
On the next day of the local kick-off event a training on youth migration indicators took place, which consisted of a presentation by István Gergő Székely (YOUMIG thematic expert, RIRNM), followed by a Q&A session. It was a successful event with a large number of participants. Altogether 17 persons attended the meeting, 15 of whom were employees of the Sfântu Gheorghe local government and the remaining two of a local think tank.
The YOUMIG local kick-off event included a press conference, too, which was accomplished with the contribution of Gergely Buja (YOUMIG project manager, Sfântu Gheorghe), Tamás Kiss (YOUMIG project manager, RIRNM) and Árpád Antal (mayor of the Municipality of Sfântu Gheorghe). Mr Buja provided a brief overview of the YOUMIG project and the current activites of the project partners, and suggested to capitalise possible links to the other Interreg project in which the Municipality is involved, namely, RARE – Changing discourses, changing practices: the Roma as human resource.
Mr Kiss outlined several research results concerning the demographic consequences of international migration and existing population projections. Mr Antal discussed, among others, the scant knowledge administrative institutions possess concerning youth out-migration from Szekler towns, and the need for more information on this topic. He also sketched several projects employed by the Municipality to attract back young people. For instance, a strategic partnership is offered to companies that provide salaries over RON 2,500 (about EUR 548) a month, and in return the Municipality provides support in the process of recruitment among young people currently living abroad.