Along line of people snakes down the drab grey lane that leads to the Complaints Office of the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing. Although the rest of the city is bathed in the warm sunshine of early summer, this queue is permanently in the shade, united by a common tragedy. Each has lost a child, abducted, presumed sold and far away from home. The parents' search for their missing children has brought them to the capital to find out why the police are not doing more to reunite the families. The silence is broken by a mother's sobs. In 1996, Luo Fen moved from rural Guizhou to work in Yunnan province; a year later she married He Kai, a man from her home town, and on August 14, 1999, they became the parents of a baby boy they named He Jin, Putonghua for 'moving forward'. The couple's choice of name reflected their improved fortunes since moving to Yunnan. In 2000, Mr He bought a minibus and started making deliveries to restaurants across the provincial capital, Kunming, while Ms Luo sold vegetables. With a household income of about 1,500 yuan per month, the couple could afford to send their son to a nearby kindergarten. Although cheap, at 130 yuan a month, it was still out of reach of most migrant parents. On September 24 last year, diarrhoea forced He Jin to take a day off from kindergarten. At 11am, the boy told his mother he and a neighbour's daughter would go to the public toilet, just metres away from their dilapidated house. Ms Luo was busy preparing lunch when the two four-year-olds left; she glanced up to see them disappear from sight, not thinking it would be the last time she would see her son. When her son hadn't returned 10 minutes later, Ms Luo called for him to come home. She went out to look for him when she received no answer and bumped into the little girl returning alone. 'The girl said an uncle took He Jin on a bicycle,' Ms Luo said. 'Then she told me he gave her money to buy candy, smiled and showed me two crumpled bills.' Ms Luo dashed back to her house and called her husband and the police. The shocked father arrived in minutes; the police never came. 'A cyclist could not have taken He Jin too far in such a short time. If the police had acted then they might have found my boy,' said Ms Luo, weeping. Ms Luo is one of a delegation of 31 parents who have travelled to Beijing to file a petition pleading for the central government to help them. They are just a small part of a bigger tragedy: at least 182 children have been abducted from Kunming in the past three years. Like He Jin, most of the children were abducted in mere seconds. 'As if they had just vaporised,' said Wang Zongcan, 36, whose 21/2-year-old son went missing on April 1. 'The local police have been so indifferent to these frequent disappearances, that in 99 per cent of cases when an abduction was reported to them, they did not bother turning up at all.' Lu Dekui, whose 31/2-year-old son disappeared two months ago, said police don't act because the missing children are mostly from low-income or migrant-worker families. 'They are just stalling for time because they know we are mostly migrant workers and have to leave the city sooner or later.' Some parents have gone so far as to accuse local police of conspiring with the child snatchers. In one case, the police persuaded a family who found their abducted son that there was no point trying to find the culprits because they already had their child back. Of the 182 missing children, 170 are boys, mostly aged between one and six. 'The gender and age are representative of how the problem of child abduction on the mainland is getting worse,' said Zhu Yantao, a Ministry of Public Security official, who has investigated many abduction cases. Ms Zhu said the problem used to be isolated to the hinterlands of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou, but now child abductions have been reported in all provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. 'The abductors and traffickers are motivated by profit. The traffic in children is a business with no costs and huge profits,' Ms Zhu said, adding that 'a baby boy can be sold for between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan, while a girl generally costs a few thousand'. 'The missing children are usually sold in rural or remote areas where people are not well-educated and still blindly believe 'more sons, more blessing',' she adds. This Confucian belief lives on in the 21st century in the disadvantaged countryside, where the majority of the mainland's population live - making boys targets of the human smugglers who sell them to infertile couples and those affected by the one child policy. The demand is too large for the supply: about 30,000 children are adopted from the mainland's 176 government-run orphanages every year. 'Parents want to adopt young, healthy children, mostly boys,' said Yan Qingchun, a Ministry of Civil Affairs official in charge of orphanages. 'However, there are always more girls than boys available, and quite a few of the children are either retarded or disabled.' There is no restriction on the number of children parents who adopt can have; the adoption law only states that they must have a 'stable and considerable income', which 'stops rural farmers from adopting children', said Mr Yan. Buying an abducted child may be the easiest way of having a son for many, not least because it is unpunishable by law. The Criminal Law was amended in 1997 to include child abductors, who face sentences of five years' jail to the death penalty. However, its loopholes allow child buyers to go scot-free as long as they 'have not abused the children or interfered with the rescue', according to Ms Zhu. 'Since the local police have not taken any action, the situation has only become worse. There have been two or three so-called Special Actions against Abductions, but they are just slogans,' said Mr Wang. 'It is particularly hard to track down snatched children, who a well-organised group can move far away in a short time and they may be re-sold several times,' said Ms Zhu, adding that 'an investigation requires lots of money, which we are short of, as well as the cooperation of various government departments, which is also very difficult'. Grateful for the ministry officials' time, the parents said they could 'forgive everything as long as our children are returned'. Things are now looking slightly more promising. After meeting them last week, Ms Zhu travelled to Fujian for five days to investigate their cases. 'I will not give up until I have solved the case,' she promised the parents. 'I hope the next time I see you all will be in Yunnan when I bring back all your children.' Provincial police officials were summoned to Beijing on June 2 to meet the representatives and find a solution. Parents said the provincial officials have admitted that 'their work was not adequate, and they are sorry for the pain it has brought us'. Despite all the promises, most of the parents have gone bankrupt searching for their children. Some were also considering staying on in Beijing, fearful that local police will take revenge on them. This is not a groundless fear as many have been told by their families that local police have been to their homes in Kunming, demanding to know who their leaders are. 'I do not want to go home,' said Ms Luo. 'I will keep on the road, searching for my son until I have spent my last penny and drawn my last breath. 'I could never think about having another child. It is meaningless and shameful to be a mother who cannot protect her baby.'