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China's migrant children hit by school closures

08 september 2011, 13:02
Xie Changsheng moved to Beijing from rural China 11 years ago in search of a better life. Now he has decided to return after the school his children attended was demolished, AFP reports.

Xie, a driver, and his wife both worked for the Hongxing School for migrant children on the northwestern edge of Beijing, where their son and daughter, aged five and six, were educated.

As the new academic year started in Beijing last week, thousands of migrant workers living in the city were forced to find new schools for their children after authorities shut down 19 illegal schools in a new crackdown.

Under China's complex residency laws, most migrant workers remain registered in their native towns and villages and do not qualify for the all-important hukou, or household registration permit, in the city where they live.

Without this document, their children do not qualify for places in public schools, making the unregistered fee-paying migrant schools their only option.

"The school sorted out problems the government could not resolve. What laws did it violate?" demanded Xie, his voice trembling with emotion.

"I have been driven into a corner. I feel so unjustly treated by society," said the 38-year-old, who believes he now has no option but to return to farming.

Around one in 10 of the 430,000 migrant children living in Beijing attend migrant schools that are not approved by the government, with the rest at public or licensed schools.

Last month, the government said it would shut down 24 unlicensed migrant schools. By the end of August, 19 had closed and the remaining five been given a temporary reprieve.

The government regularly cracks down on migrant schools. According to welfare group Migrant Workers' Friend, dozens of establishments were knocked down between 2006 and 2010.

Previous state media reports -- citing Beijing's education authorities -- have blamed inadequate food safety and security for recent closures.

Hongxing's headmistress Xie Zhenqing said that of her more than 1,300 pupils -- children of vegetable sellers, rubbish recyclers and construction workers -- several hundred had now been admitted to government schools.

Others are enrolled in other migrant schools and around 200 have returned to the countryside, while a handful of the older children have simply abandoned their education and gone to work with their parents.

"I have had lots of phone calls, so many parents are still looking for a school," said Xie, the headmistress. "Who could not be worried when their children are left without schooling?"

Beijing's education authorities declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

But the crackdown has been widely covered in China's state-run media, and some commentators say migrant workers face widespread discrimination in a city that has prospered on their labour.

"The closure of migrant schools by Beijing's education authorities without fully ensuring the children's schooling is a blatant encroachment of citizens' equal rights to education," wrote Yu Jianrong, a government think-tank researcher and social activist, on his microblog.

The respected Caixin media group said in a commentary on its website that the move was actually aimed at driving migrants out to help curb Beijing's population explosion.

But Jonathan Hursh, founder of the Compassion for Migrant Children campaign group, warned that the city would "stop functioning" without the huge influx of cheap labour migrant workers provide.

The government knows that the city cannot survive without the migrant workers, and has no choice but to address the issue, said Hursh.

"I think the message has been given quite strongly in the last few weeks, quite clearly, and I think that it brings a certain level of accountability with it that the government will respond to," he said.

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