Immigration, Inc. fuels global underground economy

"Without the money we get from our son, who lives and works in Austria, my family and I would simply starve to death," said Jovana Acimovic, a housewife struggling to make ends meet in Belgrade, Serbia.

In impoverished Tajikistan, the National Bank says migrant laborers sent home $1.1 billion last year — more than the country's GDP. Filipinos working overseas sent home a record $13.6 billion in 2005. So much cash is flowing that mobile phone operators make it possible to transfer money over a cellphone.

Maria Gorgan, a retired psychologist, left Romania two years ago for Spain, where she cares for Alzheimer's patients. She earns $1,800 a month — seven times her monthly Romanian pension, and enough to help her son make a down payment on a new house.

"We use the money I earn to support my family," said Gorgan, 56, who sends her husband a few hundred dollars each month. "I don't eat much. It's hard. But I have to do it."

In Albania, where the average monthly wage is only $250, a third of the population of 3.2 million have left for better jobs in the United States, Britain, Greece, Italy and elsewhere.

Many have no plans to return. But some, underscoring a trend also emerging in other countries — Latvia and Mexico for example — are coming back to buy homes and open businesses.

Nearly one in three Albanian real estate transactions involves an expatriate buying property back home. "That means people see their future back in Albania," said Evis Ruci, who tracks remittances for the central bank.

Nazmi Ajazi, 52, spent a few years working in Greece and returned to set up an Internet cafe and a small grocery store on the dusty outskirts of Tirana, the capital.

"It feels so good to be back in Albania, where you can be your own master," his wife, Sofie, 50, said from behind a counter laden with eggs, oranges and freshly baked bread.

But some see drawbacks.

Much of the world's migration is illegal, and although many immigrants work at menial jobs, some are doctors, engineers and other professionals. Their departure can mean a brain drain of highly trained personnel and create an immigration culture.

"Migration creates more migration," said Ilir Gedeshi, director of the Center for Economic and Social Studies in Albania, whose emigrants have stashed an estimated $14 billion in foreign banks. "It's a cycle. The next generation has to leave because there are no jobs being created for them here."

Elvin Meka, secretary-general of the Albanian Association of Banks, offers a blunt warning: "We export human beings, and they send us cash," he said. "Young people are addicted to the idea of leaving. That's the biggest crime in this country. The government is killing their dreams."

In the former Soviet republic of Moldova, globalization has unleashed a troubling exodus.

More than 600,000 of its 4 million citizens are believed to be working abroad, and since Jan. 1, 900,000 have applied for citizenship in neighboring Romania. Though emigrants sent back $920 million in 2006, more than the entire national budget, the trend has some officials wondering how much of a country will be left to govern.

"If we don't create conditions for higher wages and new jobs, people will just continue to emigrate," said Sergiu Sainciuc, Moldova's deputy economy minister.

Others don't see a problem.

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