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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 00:18 GMT
'People with no value'
A report by Amnesty International highlights the discrimination and abuse suffered by China's migrant workers.

Jonathan Hursh, a founder of an NGO working with migrant communities in Beijing, describes the difficulties facing millions of migrants and the government's approach towards an overwhelming social problem.

I established Compassion for Migrant Children a year ago. I visited a migrant community in Beijing and I was touched by the plight of migrant workers.

Jonathan Hursh
Jonathan Hursh: The right to health care and education is ignored
It was a brick home with a concrete floor with no running water and a little stove that could hardly heat them in the cold Beijing winters. A family of four were living in a room no bigger than 4 or 5 sq m.

What shocked me most was the discrimination these people suffered by urban residents. They seemed to live parallel lives in a society that has a very low regard for them and treats them like people who don't have any value.

The two major problems for the migrant communities are basic health care and education.

Substandard education

Migrant children can't go to a public school because the fees are too high or there aren't enough spaces. Prejudice plays a big part too.

Most schools would not accept migrant kids, and even if they do - the children won't feel comfortable because of the attitude from the other kids.

The migrant communities have to come up with their own solution. Many leave their children in their rural homes, where they grow up away from their parents.

A boy studying
Up to 20 million children of migrant workers face education uncertainty
The other alternative is to open up migrant schools. There are 800 migrant schools now in Beijing.

There isn't a single migrant high school, so when the children reach the highest grade, they have to go back to the countryside or face no further education.

The best possible option for a migrant child is at the most a substandard quality of education. Migrant schools are improvised: with concrete floors, little or no heating, often no playground.

Classrooms are overcrowded to accommodate the largest possible number of pupils. The quality of teaching is extremely low - most of the teachers are not qualified to do the job.

The worst thing is that their very existence is not legally secured. The local authorities can turn up any time to close them down. As far as I know only a few migrant schools in Beijing have been awarded a legal status.

It is true that many are unsafe and unsanitary. But the local authorities can use just about any reason to close them down. Last summer, a few schools were closed down in the Haidian district of Beijing. The school year started on 1 September and on the 4 September they were allowed to open again.

I think this was some kind of an experiment for the government. They wanted to test the way media will react to the closures, the way migrants will react themselves and whether they'll send their kids back home.

Change of attitude

In the last year there has been increased interest by the government towards the plight of migrant workers. The media is also paying more attention to them.

A migrant worker
Migrants are estimated to be between 150 and 200 million
Not much has changed in practice, but it is a sign that awareness of the social problems for migrants is growing. They started talking about a more 'harmonious society' and 'social justice'.

They have an overwhelming social problem and they don't know what to do with it. My feeling and hope is that they follow closely what NGOs do, so that they can later copy them in areas of success. I really hope to be out of business in five years' time.

Things look set to change in a positive direction, even if for the time being it's only a rhetoric. The outside world also has a role to play.

I don't think China should be criticised too much now because that will antagonise the government and push them towards a more isolationist behaviour. I think they need to be encouraged to behave like a responsible power.

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