China is taking steps to deal with its increasing number of homeless children, said Zhang Shifeng, deputy director of the Ministry Civil Affairs' social welfare office, at a conference of local leaders from across the nation held on Sunday in Beijing.
Zhang stated that there are at least 150,000 homeless children wandering the country's cities, most of them from underdeveloped rural areas.
"Most of these children are suffering from inadequate daily necessities and have no chance to receive a normal education, which has a lifelong negative impact on their physical and mental health. Some of them even become criminals," Zhang said.
Poverty and a breakdown in the family structure are the two major contributing causes of the country's rise in homeless children, according to Dr. Christian Voumard, the United Nations Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) China representative.
"Economic and social reform has indeed benefited many in China, but the human cost of such a rapid transformation has been increased pressure on individuals and families, a growing migrant population, a higher divorce rate and a growing gap between poor and rich and between rural and urban residents and those in different regions. All of these are pushing our children from their families to the streets," he said.
"The tsunami that hit south and southeast Asia in last December left thousands of children homeless," said Masahiro Ono, project officer at the UNICEF China Office "Fortunately, they have received timely aid from the international society. But we should never forget that a 'soundless tsunami' -- violence, abuse, drugs and sexual exploitation -- is killing many street children too, including those from China. They have the need and also the right to get our immediate attention."
Before being placed in a government-run protection center for street children in Guangzhou in the summer of 2004, 11-year-old Wang Xiaohai wandered from city to city in the south for more than two years.
Wang ran away from his abusive parents in 2002, the year the farming family moved to Xiamen, a coastal city in southeastern Fujian Province, from a poor village in southwestern Chongqing Municipality.
"They often beat me and I don't know why. Now I'm afraid of going back home and I don't think they have ever tried to find me," said the boy matter-of-factly. "The teachers in the center are really nice to me and I don't want to leave them."
Before coming to the center, Wang slept outdoors with his friends and made a living by selling soda cans or polishing shoes.
Although sending street children back home is the first choice of Chinese aid institutions, those who can't find their families or who are reluctant to go back are sent to child welfare houses, foster families or special protection centers. They receive special education and vocational training to help integrate them into society.
China opened its first pilot protection center for street children in 1995. By 2003, the central government had spent more than 120 million yuan (US$14.5 million) to establish more than 130 special protection centers providing short-term shelter and education for urban street kids. They have helped more than 10,000 children, said Li Liguo, vice minister of the Civil Affairs.
China has begun drafting its first special law on the protection of homeless children, while regulations on shelters and assistance for vagrants in cities took effect in August 2003. The regulations specify the responsibilities and duties of government organs in helping street kids.
"We are glad to see that the Chinese government is working to help homeless children, issuing the special regulations on vagrants in 2003, which is really a milestone event in street children protection work in China," said Robert Wilkinson, deputy director-general of the Save the Children UK China Program.
China plans to build more shelters for street children while strengthening cooperation with international organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children UK, said Zhang Shifeng.
"We still have many things to do, but we can't just wait for help. Action should start today," Zhang said.
(Xinhua News Agency March 7, 2005)