Geng Ting, 11, had mixed feelings when she left her hometown three years ago to join her parents, who work in Beijing.
"I was happy to rejoin my parents but unwilling to leave friends I'd grown up with," said Geng. She came to Beijing from Gushi County in Henan Province and is now a fifth-grader at the Longhai School for children of migrant workers in Daxing District, Beijing.
Nobody knows exactly how many migrant children there are in Beijing, but about 400,000 are eligible to attend school, according to Ma Chentong, deputy director of the Beijing Women and Children Working Committee.
Experts advocate the registration of migrant children nationwide as a way to improve their lot.
Chen Xiurong, deputy chairman of the All-China Women's Federation and a deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC), said that the fifth national census in 2000 showed there were about 19.8 million migrant children.
"But the current figure could be far different, as migrant workers have almost doubled over the past decade," Chen said. As with migrant children, there's no definitive figure on the number of migrant workers, but some estimates put the number at 10 percent of China's 1.5 billion population.
Pilot projects to register migrant children are being supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province since 2001 and in Beijing since 2007.
Police usually only collect information on migrants over 16 years of age for public security purposes, but migrant children are often overlooked. The UNICEF-backed project is being implemented in partnership with the Office of the National Working Committee for Children and Women (NWCCW) under the State Council.
"The registration system developed by the project makes these children more visible to the local authorities and facilitates their protection and referral to services," said Zhang Yali, Plan of Action and Promotion of Child Rights Program Officer of the UNICEF Office for China, "Knowing the exact number of the children of migrants can help the government arrange resources for their education or health."
Instability is a reality for this population, said Dong Laifu, who funded the Longhai School for migrant children. "At least 200 students leave the school each year or about one seventh of all students."
Geng Ting has been at five schools in three years in Beijing and doesn't like it. "I sometimes lose my temper with my parents for changing schools so often as I've just built up relationships with teachers and friends and then I have to leave. It means I have to do this all over again."
Also, she said, some schools weren't up to standard and her parents wanted to find better ones for her.
It is difficult to convince many migrant parents to register their children, as they fear the information will be used to levy a family planning penalty.
"Most migrant families have one or two children, but some families have more than three and they fear that registration will be used to fine them. They refuse to fill in the forms or claim these are relatives' children," said Wu Lihua, director of the Shibalidian Migration Population Control Office in Chaoyang District.
Benefits for registration could ease these fears. Zhang said that registration should result in more services, such as fare discounts on public transport -- as local children get -- or insurance.
"We explain that it will give them more access to public services, such as free vaccinations," Wu said.
Free medical check-ups, sports kits, books and computers are also provided to some schools with migrant children in the UNICEF pilot cities.
"Most parents have little money to buy books other than text books for their children. We provide books about literature and science to diversify their reading. We also provide computers so the kids can have access to the Internet as most migrant families can't afford this, in a bid to narrow the digital gap between children," Zhang said.
Many experts worry about the psychological and social well-being of these children. The registration of migrant children is expected to facilitate their access and referral to public health services including psycho-social support, said Zou Hong, a professor with the Psychology College at Beijing Normal University.
"I wept a lot when my parents were not at my side. I yearned to talk to them, especially when I could not get along with my friends or had to study too much," Geng said.
She was angry with her parents for leaving her behind when she was five and told her mother "you're so bad for not taking me along with you," Geng recalled, but she does not hate her parents as "they work to make the family's life better."
Her parents sell decorative materials in a nearby market and each earns about 700 yuan (US$100) a month. They spend 300 yuan on rent for a small room and 600 yuan every semester for Geng's education.
When Geng first came to Beijing, she dared not speak for "fear of the new environment." Asked whether she was discriminated against by local children, Geng and her close friend Wang Jing said: "We don't know any local Beijing children yet. We only play with the children of migrants."
Living in cities distances these children from their hometowns. Geng said that she no longer felt close to her childhood friends when she went home for the holidays. "We have not played together for so long," she said.
Figures from the All-China Women's Federation released in February indicate that 58 million children are left behind in rural China when one or both parents work year-round in the cities. These children often find themselves shifting between the roles of migrant and left-behind children.
Lu Wei, 12, a sixth-grader at Xinghai School in Chaoyang District, came to Beijing from Shanxi Province three years ago. He will have to go back to his hometown for middle school this September.
"I have to return and sit the university entry exam in my hometown. It will be too late if I only return home for high school. I would fail to catch up with the local teaching content as we have to score higher than Beijing locals for a university entry," Lu says
Under China's hukou (permanent residence registration system), rural children must return to their hometowns for university entrance exams.
Lu will be sad to leave his parents and will miss them. "Sometimes I wonder why I am so unlucky. The bottom score for Beijing locals is about 500 points to enter university while ours is about 600 points," he said.
Both Geng and Lu plan to attend boarding schools when they go home, a common choice for left-behind children.
Geng said that she felt no bitterness. "I feel happy and secure as long as I could stay with my parents."
Geng said she wanted to become a painter to present "beautiful things to the world." Lu said he wanted to be a scientist to invent new things for humankind, "like solar-powered cars to reduce pollution."
(Xinhua News Agency March 24, 2008)