The prevalence of Uygur street children from Xinjiang in cities across the mainland is fuelling tensions between Uygyurs and Han Chinese, according to researchers, who say more social and economic support is needed to help tackle the problem.
China has an estimated 1.5 million street children who have left home to escape poverty or domestic violence, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Of these, an estimated 100,000 are from Xinjiang.
The vast majority are Uygurs, a community of nine million Turkic-speaking Muslims who are by far the largest of the 12 ethnic minorities in the far western region.
Many of the under-age Uygurs living rough on the streets fall prey to human traffickers and end up as pickpockets or prostitutes, one reason why they are reviled by the Han and rejected by conservative Muslim communities at home.
This may help to explain why up to 70 per cent of Uygur street children returned to the cities even after they were rounded up and sent home in a massive but largely unsuccessful repatriation campaign over the past decade, according to Alimjan Yusan, a 23-year-old Uygur social science student at Shanghai University who, with the help of several sociologists, recently completed a report on the plight of Uygur street children.
"The nationwide rescue campaigns focused only on alleviating the symptoms - removing children from the streets - but failed to provide appropriate help for these child victims," Alimjan said.
The sense of exclusion Uygur children feel in both communities pushes them into lives of delinquency and discrimination, he said.
"Once Uygur juveniles are labelled thieves, they face rejection by their families back home because stealing is a sin for Muslims. And no local schools will admit such an 'evil child'."
Almost all Uygur street children come from poverty-stricken prefectures in southern Xinjiang, where some parents hand their children to traffickers to seek a better living in other cities.
Grinding poverty in their home regions is another of the reasons street children filter back to the cities.
The fact that the children were falling prey to human traffickers, who were pressing them into petty crime and prostitution, prompted the Xinjiang government and authorities in some cities to launch the repatriation campaign over the past decade to tackle the homelessness and abduction of children. In February, authorities said 1,600 vagrant Uygur children had returned home in Xinjiang over the past two years.
However, Turgunjan Tursun, an associate researcher at the Academy of Social Sciences of Xinjiang, said he estimated that 60 per cent to 70 per cent of them returned to the eastern cities.
"The reasons for the high prevalence of Xinjiang children, and the problems they endure, are so complicated and different from other street children in the mainland and overseas," he said.
"The official rescue campaigns have failed to come up with comprehensive and scientific solutions to the problem, such as economic help and counselling for the children and their families."
Turgunjan said that many Uygur child pickpockets had distorted values after being brainwashed by human traffickers, who are also Uygurs.
"Muslim children dare to risk stealing from Han Chinese because they are told by their handlers [human traffickers] that the Han majority has stolen many resources from Xinjiang, and that stealing money is just a means to help Uygurs take back what they deserve."