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BALACIU, Romania (Reuters) - Desperate parents are fleeing the poverty of Romania's countryside in search of work elsewhere in the European Union, leaving their children behind to be cared for by others.
Since Romania joined the EU at the start of 2007, thousands of children have been left with grandparents, neighbors or local authorities while their parents seek work, often illegally, on Italian construction sites or in Spanish orchards.
"The phenomenon is on the rise since Romania joined the EU, opening doors to free travel across borders in western Europe," said Mariela Neagu who runs the state child protection agency.
"The parents see it as a sacrifice for their children, to give them a better future."
In some schools, more than half the students live without either or both parents. Many villages in northern and eastern Romania appear to be inhabited only by children and their grandparents.
Official figures show 80,000 of more than 4 million Romanian children have one parent or both parents working abroad. Social workers and volunteers say the real number is much higher.
Bogdan Lacatus was seven years old when his father went to Spain to find work and 11 when his mother left their village in southern Romania to follow him.
A thin boy with large brown eyes and a soft voice, he now lives in a state child care facility, waiting for his parents to claim him or for social workers to find him a foster family.
"I think they will come back," he said softly.
He may have to wait a long time, according to social workers who are unable to locate either of his parents. Bogdan's mother returned to Romania briefly but disappeared after a few days.
At his great-aunt's farmhouse, where he stayed briefly before being moved into care, ducks and chickens picked through the dusty yard littered with rusting metal and rotting fruit.
Distant relatives have fought to be able to care for Bogdan and his two younger siblings since their mother left Romania months ago. Social workers say they are safer in state care where they avoid harsh treatment and poverty.
"Parents have to notify us when they leave children behind and the local authority monitors them," said Nicolae Badea of the social protection authority monitoring Bogdan's case. "If there are problems, we take them into care."
In some ways, Bogdan is lucky. He is likely to avoid being placed in one of the vast, dirty orphanages that caught the world's attention in the early 1990s, which have virtually disappeared in Romania.
However, the relatively poor state has just started overhauling its child care, crippled and corrupted by years of dictatorship and the graft-tainted society it spawned.
Care may be more friendly now, but critics say bureaucracy, corruption and ineptitude hobble reforms, while many children still have no state protection.
Small children dot Bucharest's busiest intersections during midday traffic, dodging cars to beg for cash. Others huddle along the capital's underground passageways, sniffing glue.
The migration problem is not unique to Romania, plaguing several other poor EU members in eastern Europe.
Romania has asked Spain and Italy, the main destinations of Romanians looking for work, to set up pilot language programs in schools in the hope of making it easier for children to integrate and encouraging parents to take them along.
Bogdan's is a typical southern Romanian village which relies on corn and sunflower cultivation for its livelihood, and is struggling to survive in increasingly competitive markets.
Its small school, on a dirt road and surrounded by fruit trees tended by the children, teaches pupils French and English.
"These children are not fed right, not dressed right. They are sensible and sweet but they would do better if their parents were around," said Mariana Mirea, Bogdan's teacher.
Labor migration is an essential part of the Romanian economy, with 2 million Romanians, or one in 10, living abroad since the fall of communism in 1989.
Official figures show the outflow of legal workers has steadied in recent years, but anecdotal evidence shows illegal migration is still high.
The cash the migrants send home has helped rejuvenate parts of the countryside but has depleted the workforce and forced up wages which economists say may deter foreign investment.
Researchers say a generation of children is growing up without proper family support. Already, the number of years Romanian children spend in school is among the lowest in the EU, according to Eurostat figures.
Filanda, a mother of three who does odd jobs in Milan with her husband, said she could not afford to take her children when she went to Italy in January in search of work.
"They are my children and I am upset," she said, declining to give her full name. "There was no hope in Romania. There is a bit of hope here."
Additional reporting by Iulia Rosca in Bucharest and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Milan; editing by Janet Lawrence