58 million children of Chinese migrants are growing up without their parents
Recent studies demonstrate the extent of the phenomenon, which until now has been underestimated. Parents are looking for a better life, but often their children left at home have difficulty at school, are victims of abuse, or fall into crime. Experts: migrants must be granted residency rights where they work.

Beijing (AsiaNews/CLB) - 58 million children of migrants are left at home with their grandparents, or completely on their own, with a neighbor looking in on them from time to time. The parents, at least 110 million of them between the ages of 16 and 40, are looking for a better life in the factories and construction sites to the east, thousands of kilometers away. Often they are able to return home just once or twice a year, for only a few days.

The prestigious online magazine China Labour Bulletin cites recent research that demonstrates that the number of children "left behind" is much larger than the approximately 20 million estimated by the government until now. In the big cities, migrants live as "illegals," without residency, health care, or free schooling. The parents work seven days a week, and are unable to attend to their children. A recent study by the All-China Women's Federation says that 58 million children under the age of 18 are left at home, equivalent to 20% of all children in the countryside. Among them, more than 40 million are under the age of 15, and 30 million are between the ages of 6 and 15. 52% of the children live in the provinces of Henan, Hunan, Guangdong, Anhui, Sichuan and Jiangxi.

Of these, 47% live with one of their parents, usually their mother, and 26% with their grandparents (but this figure is 73% in the central and western regions): in extreme cases, some grandparents have as many as 7 grandchildren in their care. The remaining 27% live with other relatives, friends, or on their own.

According to estimates by the municipal government of Changsha (but confirmed as the trend in all the other studies), 44% of children see their parents only once a year, and a similar percentage see them twice a year. But 3% see them only once every two years, and in extreme cases children have not seen their parents for six years. About 45% of the children don't even know where their parents work, and 75% have never gone to visit them. A study by the Hunan Provincial Youth League (a communist party group) revealed that 9.3% of children don't even miss their parents: raised by their grandparents, some of them don't have any memories of their parents, or consider them "a pure symbolic concept, with no emotional connection."

Left to themselves, these children grow up in an abnormal fashion: they quickly learn to rely on their own resources, but they are often victims of accidents, injuries, natural disasters; they try to study and meet their parents' expectations, but often with poor results, partly because no one helps them: according to the All-China Women's Federation of Qingdao, 45% of their grandchildren have never gone to school, and 55% went only to elementary school. The girls who are left behind are more frequently the victims of sexual violence, usually by people they know or by neighbors: in general, they are older adults able to provide "safety." An investigation by the Southern Metropolis Daily in 2008 said that 76 girls ages 7 and up in a mountain region of Liangshan (Sichuan) were subjected to forced labor in Dongguan.

For some, however, resentment toward their parents creates violent and criminal behavior. Public safety sources say that at least 80% of youth delinquency cases in rural areas involve the children of migrants. Figures from the supreme court say that since the year 2000 in China, there has been an annual increase of 13% in juvenile delinquency, and 70% of juvenile delinquents are children of migrants.

Experts note that the problem is caused above all by the inability of migrants to get residency (hukou) in the big cities where they work. Without residency, their children have no right to education and health care. This discriminatory system must be abolished, and all must be guaranteed minimal social welfare, otherwise - they say - about 58 million rural children, an entire generation, risk spending their "youth" this way.