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New report shows little improvement in the lives of migrant workers’ children in China

The Chinese government has implemented a whole raft of policies over the last decade to improve the lives of migrant workers’ children. However, a new survey published by the All-China Women’s Federation shows that between 2005 and 2010, the numbers of left-behind children and migrant children in the cities both increased, while the long-standing issues of separation, loneliness and vulnerability, as well as the lack of access to decent education, healthcare and social services remained largely unresolved.

The survey, based on data from the 2010 census, shows that the number of left-behind children increased by 2.42 million to reach 61 million, or about 38 percent of the total rural population under the age of 18.

There was a much greater increase in the number of migrant children living in China’s cities. In 2010, there were 35.8 million migrant children in the cities, an increase of 41.4 percent over five years. Children from rural families accounted for about 80 percent of that total, about 28.8 million in all.

However, only 41 percent of migrant children in the cities were aged between six- and 14-years-old, indicating that despite some loosening of local government restrictions in the 2000s, many migrant workers still had great difficulty finding a school place for their children in the city.

The number of compulsory school age migrant children in the cities did increase by 30.8 percent over the five years. However, the number of children aged 15 to 17-years-old, those more likely to be seeking employment than education, increased by 61.4 percent and accounted for 31.5 percent of the total migrant population under 18-years-of-age.

The increase in the number of school age migrant children may have been comparatively slow but it still resulted in a backlash in some cities, such as Beijing, which are now placing even more onerous restrictions on migrant children’s access to education, forcing more and more families to send their children back “home” for their schooling.

The 2010 survey meanwhile showed that, while the number of school-age children left behind in the countryside had decreased by 9.7 percent, the number of pre-school children had increased dramatically by 47.7 percent to stand at 23.4 million. The survey showed that the vast majority of pre-school children (about 73 percent) were staying with their grandparents. However, that percentage dropped rapidly after the children became teenagers. The percentage of left-behind children aged 12-14 staying with their grandparents fell to about 41 percent, with most children living with one parent, other relatives or by themselves.

As CLB noted in our 2009 research report on the children of migrant workers, once children become teenagers the grandparents find it more and more difficult to raise them. By the time they finish middle school, children are much more likely to travel to the city to seek work. There were just 8.1 million left-behind children aged 15 to 17 in 2010, compared with 11.3 million migrant children of the same age in the cities.

Since 2010 however there is evidence that labour migration patterns are shifting in China, with more and more economic opportunities opening up in inland provinces such as Sichuan and Henan, traditionally the main exporters of migrant labour to the southern coastal provinces. As migrants work closer to home there is a greater chance that some of the problems currently faced by migrant children can be resolved simply through closer proximity.

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