Decline in Traumatic Trend
The number of children left behind by migrating parents has dropped, thanks to remedial policies and statistical change
By Wang Hairong  ·  2016-12-12  ·   Source: | NO.50 DECEMBER 15, 2016


The number of children left behind by migrating parents has dropped, thanks to remedial policies and statistical change (XINHUA)

The farmers' market tucked in an alley in Beijing's Xicheng District has gone through a facelift. A ceramic tiled floor, new lights and sparkling shelves have transformed the once shabby street-corner store into a bright and organized one. After the renovation, a smiling Wu Mei, wearing a pristine white apron on top of her working clothes, stands beside bags of grains and bottles of oil, ready to do business.

It is the eighth year since she came to Beijing from her village in Handan of Hebei Province, more than 400 km away. But she did not bring her two children, aged 10 and 5, with her. They are staying with their grandparents in their village.

"I did not bring them to Beijing because it is not easy to put them in school here. I want them to go to university in the future. Then they will join me in Beijing," she said.

Children of migrant workers in Beijing need to have five documents before they can join a public school for compulsory education from Grade 1 to Grade 9. Besides a temporary residence permit, proof of current address and at least one parent's employment certificate, they also need to provide a letter from the hometown government certifying that there are no guardians to take care of the child there, and the hukou, which is the household registration certificate issued by the local authorities.

A child whose hukou has been issued by the Hebei authorities will not be able to sit for the national college entrance examination in Beijing. To do that, she or he would need a Beijing hukou. Moreover, textbooks and examination questions vary across the country. So a student would be better equipped to take the examination at her or his hometown.

Wu said her kids are doing fine back home. "I visit them about four times every year and talk to them often on the phone."

Her children are among a category of youngsters known as "left-behind children" in China. As surplus rural laborers migrate to cities during rapid urbanization process, inadequate family care for their children has become a growing concern. Those left behind in their places of origin while the parents are away for jobs are called left-behind children, while those accompanying their parents are called migrant children. Children in both groups encounter difficulties specific to that group.

Dwindling number 

Currently, there are 9.02 million left-behind children aged below 16 in rural China. The majority of them live in the custody of grandparents, other relatives or family friends. However, there are still 360,000 youngsters who do not have any guardians, according to a joint survey by the ministries of civil affairs, education and public security this year.

This number, though substantial, still indicates a marked decline from earlier figures. In 2010, the Sixth National Population Census showed there were a whopping 61.03 million left-behind children in rural areas. It meant about one in three rural children or one in five children in China was a left-behind child.

An official with the Ministry of Civil Affairs explained the two major reasons for the drop in the number to Xinhua News Agency.

First, a series of measures have been taken to care for left-behind children in rural areas and protect them. Steps have been made to help impoverished rural families improve their incomes. The household registration system has been reformed, making it easier for migrants to obtain the hukou in a different province. Equal access to education for migrant children is being promoted and there are policies encouraging migrant workers to start their own businesses in their hometown so that they don't need to migrate in search of better incomes.

The other reason is the change in the definition of left-behind children. In February, the State Council, China's cabinet, released a guideline on caring for and protecting left-behind children. The document defines left-behind children as minors under 16 living in their hometown with both parents being migrant workers, or one parent a migrant worker and the other incapable of taking care of the child.

Previously, a left-behind child was defined as one under 18 living in his or her hometown in which either parent was a migrant worker.

The 2010 census showed that more than 30 million rural children living in their hometown had both parents working as migrant workers, Xinhua reported. It suggests that even after making adjustments for the definition change, there has been a reduction of nearly 20 million.

Children in custody 

Left-behind children have been found to be more likely to be in trouble. A survey by the China Youth and Children Research Center, a Beijing-based think tank, in 2014 found that they were more likely to suffer from mishaps, which ranged from animal bites, cuts and falls to traffic accidents and even drowning. Their academic performance also tended to be poorer, and they were more likely to be in a "negative" mood.

Heart-breaking tragedies involving left-behind children have been reported in recent years. On a cold drizzling night in November 2012, five left-behind children, around 10 years old, suffocated in a garbage bin close to their native village in Bijie, Guizhou Province. They had lit a fire inside the bin and huddled around it to keep warm, and consequently, died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Three years later, four left-behind children aged 5-13 killed themselves by drinking poison at home in the same city. Both their parents were away and they had no guardian. Their mother left home in 2014 because of domestic violence, and their father went out to work as a migrant worker just three months before the tragedy. The children had been living by themselves. Though their father had left a store of food at home as well as a bank card to cover their living expenses, it had apparently not been enough to meet the children's emotional needs.

"Family care is the basic guarantee for the healthy growth of children. Parents should shoulder their responsibility to protect and care for their children, according to law," said Tong Lihua, Director of Beijing Children's Legal Aid and Research Center. "Even though they work away from home, they should not shirk this legal responsibility," he added.

The government has taken a number of measures to care for these children. In the guideline for strengthening care and the protection of left-behind children, the State Council stressed that families should shoulder the primary custodial responsibility. It also suggested that migrant worker parents take their minor children with them when they go to a different place for work; or one parent should stay behind to take care of them.

Those who cannot do either of the two should entrust their children to competent relatives or other adults. Children under 16 should not be allowed to live by themselves.

The guideline also spells out the responsibilities of local governments, schools and social organizations. It emphasizes the need to integrate migrant workers into cities and give them and their family access to compulsory education, healthcare as well as day-care services.


Teachers in Gaoma Village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region escort left-behind children home on September 7 (XINHUA)

United families 

In the market where Wu works, most of the other women said their children are living with them in Beijing. A vegetable seller said her daughter was in Grade 5 in a primary school in Beijing. One stall keeper brought her toddler to the store.

The Compulsory Education Law, revised in 2006, stipulates that the governments of cities receiving migrant children should be responsible for providing compulsory education to these children. This has, in general, improved migrant children's access to public schools in host cities though some cities have retained some thresholds.

More and more migrant children at the compulsory education stage have been found to be living with their families in cities. A report released by New Citizen Program, a Beijing-based charity working to improve the conditions of migrant workers' children, said the number of children accompanying their migrant parents had risen from 9.97 million in 2009 to 12.94 million in 2014, growing at a faster rate than that of the total floating population.

In October, the National Health and Family Planning Commission released a report on the floating population in China, saying the average size of floating families in 2015 was bigger than in 2013. Over half the floating families had more than three members in 2015 and the floating population totaled 247 million, which meant one out of six people in China was migrant.

The report predicted that in the next one or two decades, China's rapid urbanization would continue and the size of the floating population would remain above 200 million by 2020.

Caring for rural left-behind children and protecting them is a long-term task, said Huang Shuxian, Minister of Civil Affairs. The next step is for different stakeholders to work together to ensure the completion of the task. The Ministry of Civil Affairs is seeking to put all rural children in appropriate and adequate custody.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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