Buenos Aires / Bucharest, a Long Road Home

Back in the late 90s, it was common to see them in the streets of downtown Buenos Aires. The porteños* were used to other migration flows, but with astonished looks they wondered how these strange-looking people, with gipsy attire, dark skin, braided hair, and speaking an unfamiliar language, would strive to obtain a coin from them in exchange for the performances of their small children who played the accordions and who, little by little, turned their own melodies into tunes more associated with tango and the local rhythms.

Today, two Romanian families are returning home, together with their five children, pure little Argentineans, who will go on with their lives in Europe. Someday someone will remind them about their place of origin down there in the south; Buenos Aires, a remote and strange city for them.

But five years have passed since they arrived in Argentina, a period in which they suffered the drama of daily survival and the ghost of abandonment at the hands of their countrymen who cheated and stole from them and promised them a better job 12,000 kilometres from their home. The phantom of trafficking has haunted the lives of these stranded Romanians.

Organized mendicity in Buenos Aires in the 90s promised to be profitable at a time when the local currency was 1 peso to 1 dollar. But the promise of easy money fell through with the huge economic crisis of 2001.

There are plenty of testimonies about the large amount of money that the Romanian mothers and their children collected on the city streets in the first years, until (and as a result of the crisis) those who directed the business vanished along with the good humour of the porteños.

The families returning with IOM assistance today, as well as many others who have already left Argentina, were forced to sleep outdoors, in the squares of Buenos Aires. Other times, they would take refuge in state-run shelters or a room somewhere if they could raise some money from working in informal waste collection as cartoneros,** or by begging.

Meanwhile, the sons and daughters who came to Argentina as kids are returning as adolescents, never having attended school or played football, without friends. In some cases, teenage motherhood thrust them into a new life.

Today they are returning to the town of Cluj in Romania, with worn-out smiles and the children who were born in Argentina and who will probably never speak the native language, but who are testimony of the tough side of life that met them head-on in sunny Buenos Aires. But they are also returning with the hope that comes from returning to a familiar place, to the home they left behind, and the family they have not seen in years and whom they fear they may not recognize.

IOM’s Humanitarian Assistance Fund for Stranded Migrants provided support for the return of the 12 members of the two Romanian families featured in this story. IOM’s Regional Office in Buenos Aires provided assistance for the voluntary return before, during and after the trip from Argentina to Romania.

Elena Solari
IOM Buenos Aires


Porteño: A person born in the city of Buenos Aires.  The word derives from the Spanish "puerto" (harbour).


Cartoneros: People who strive for survival by collecting garbage and cardboard on the streets of Buenos Aires.