WASHINGTON—Thousands of children belonging to Muslim families in China's northwest are being cared for each year in a regional rescue center while authorities try to track down their parents, RFA's Uyghur service has learned.
The task is difficult, sometimes impossible, because many of the children were trafficked to inland Chinese cities at a very young age and have little memory of the homes they left behind.
"We usually take in between 2,000 and 3,000 homeless children every year," an official at the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Orphans and Homeless Children Rescue Center told RFA's Uyghur service.
"Most of them were deceived and sold into Chinese cities," the official told RFA.
"They were forced to become thieves. Ninety-eight percent of these children are Uyghurs," the official said, referring to the Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority who inhabit the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
We usually take in between 2,000 and 3,000 homeless children every year...98 percent of these children are Uyghurs.
The Chinese-language Tengritagh Web site recently reported the cases of six homeless children at the rescue center who had been returned to Xinjiang by local police officers in other areas of China.
But the children, who included a young girl taken from her parents at age three, were now unable to remember their families or their location, a report carried on the Web site said.
Uyghur rights activists say the problem stems from the poverty of the families concerned, but is also part of a wider pattern of discrimination against Uyghurs in China, who are subject to strict religious and political control by Beijing.
"Chinese human-traffickers come to the Uyghur region from inner China and tell the girls that they will find them paying jobs," Uyghur businesswoman and rights activist Rebiya Kadeer, who was recently released from a Chinese prison, told RFA.
"Then they sell these girls by transferring them from owner to owner. The human-trafficking of young Uyghur children is becoming a profession in Xinjiang," Kadeer said.
"They are children of poor families. They were deceived and sold by the Chinese and forced to become thieves, heroin sellers and prostitutes," Kadeer said.
The range of work includes begging, collecting rubbish for recycling, scavenging rubbish dumps, shoe-shining, flower or magazine and newspaper sales, prostitution, or the less visible petty theft.
Street children are evident in large cities across the Asia Pacific region, where they work in occupations that bring them into contact with the public, both the local population and foreign tourists, a 2003 report for the Asian Development Bank found.
"The range of work includes begging, collecting rubbish for recycling, scavenging rubbish dumps, shoe-shining, flower or magazine and newspaper sales, prostitution, or the less visible petty theft," said the report, authored by Save the Children social adviser Andrew West.
"Some children are trafficked or otherwise coerced into involvement in illegal activities, from bag-snatching and petty theft to drug- or weapons-smuggling. Children may steal food or clothes for themselves," West said.
Overseas agencies have identified China as a significant center for human-trafficking, both within its borders and internationally.
"The Peoples' Republic of China is a source, transit, and destination country for persons trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation," the 2004 U.S. State Department report on Trafficking in Persons said.
"The domestic trafficking of women and children for marriage and forced labor is a significant problem," it said.
West's report, entitled At The Margins: Street Children in Asia and the Pacific , singled out Uyghur children as particularly vulnerable because they faced additional forms of discrimination.
"Discrimination against various ethnic groups is rife in some countries. Where an ethnic distinction is obvious, then the affected street children face additional problems: for example, the children from Xinjiang in other parts of the People's Republic of China," he wrote.
Generally, street children could be beaten by police, shopkeepers, or other adults, and were often subject to harassment by police, including beatings, abuse and other violence, including sexual violation, West's report said.
But it also said the Xinjiang rescue center had launched a cross-displinary initiative to solve the problem at source, through education.
The center had involved the Justice Bureau, Civil Affairs Bureau, the Women’s Federation, and the University and Social Science Academy with the support of Save the Children UK, in providing awareness-raising events in local languages around the region, including television programs and mass meetings, the report said.
Original reporting by RFA's Uyghur service, directed by Dolkun Kamberi. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.