Two in every five children born in Hong Kong to mainland parents may grow up maladjusted if they are made to cross the border daily for classes or live away from their parents, a research specialist in youth development has warned.
The risk of psychological issues such as childhood anxiety and depression can double in such difficult environments and early action is needed to address the problem, said Polytechnic University chair professor Daniel Shek Tan-lei.
His warning comes as the government launches a public consultation today on ways to cope with the extra schooling demand from the 200,000 children born to mainlanders since 2001. The exercise will also delve into ageing issues and how to improve population quality.
"The educational needs of these children is only one of the areas the government should look into. Their mental health is worrying. They lack parental care and are a high-risk group," he told the South China Morning Post.
"I wonder how many can grow up happily and healthily when they have to spend four to five hours a day commuting to schools across the border. I see the problem becoming more apparent in the next 10 years."
Shek is also the new chairman of the Family Council, set up by the government in 2007 to promote a family-friendly environment and advise on family policies.
He referred to his own research papers from 1995 to 2011 which he said showed that anxiety, behavioural problems, learning difficulties and other mental health issues afflicted about 20 per cent of children living under normal conditions. In the sort of environment the 200,000 children were facing, the figure could double to 40 per cent, meaning 80,000 were at risk, he said.
Some are left in the city with relatives or paid guardians, separated from their parents on the mainland, in order to get an education while saving on the daily commute. The government has projected that only 20 per cent of the 200,000 children would choose cross-border study, a finding that demographic research has cast doubt on.
Samuel Wong Kit-yip, co- ordination officer of the Cross Border Children Concern Coalition, said some mainland mothers stayed with their children in Hong Kong, but only on a 14-day tourist visa or three-month two-way permit.
"The existing policy is very unfriendly," Wong said. "The children have to take more than two weeks off from school and visit the mainland with their mothers to renew the visa or permit."
Shek also spoke on the need to plan ahead after the government came under fire for its poor handling of additional demand for kindergarten education in border towns triggered by applications from mainland parents.
"Should we encourage them to receive education in Shenzhen instead of crossing the border to study in North District? This deserves consideration," Shek said.
Sources said setting up schools across the border so that Hong Kong-born children could live with their mainland parents was among options to be discussed in the consultation.