BEIJING (AP) _ Rural Chinese children increasingly risk being sold or forced to become beggars, petty thieves or sex workers as their farmer parents flock to cities looking for work, an international rights group said Wednesday.
China has a thriving black market in girls and women who are sold as brides, as well as babies who are abducted or bought from poor families for sale to childless couples or those who have one child and want more.
The government says that it has cracked down harshly on such cases, and that the trend is decreasing.
But Kate Wedgwood, Save the Children's country director for China and North Korea, said there are no reliable figures for the number of children being trafficked and the continued mass migration from farms to cities is sure to make the problem worse.
``We already know the risks (of child trafficking) are exacerbated by migration, so I think the likelihood is that it will increase,'' she said.
In recent years, an estimated 150 million to 200 million people have moved from the countryside to urban areas where their labor in factories and on construction sites has fueled China's breakneck economic growth.
Several hundred million more are expected to leave China's vast rural hinterland over the next 15 to 20 years.
Poor rural children from ethnic communities are the most at risk because they have limited command of Mandarin Chinese and often don't know their rights, Wedgwood said. Disabled kids and children of parents with HIV/AIDS also face increased risk of being trafficked and are sometimes forced into panhandling.
She estimated that there are tens of thousands of boys from far western China's Xinjiang region who have been bought or kidnapped by gangs who force them into pickpocketing and other nonviolent crime in China's eastern cities.
Ethnic minority girls from Yunnan province and the Guangxi region in the south are at risk of being forced into the sex trade within China and also in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, she said.
Children left behind in villages are vulnerable because they are often looked after by grandparents _ who often need care themselves _ or by institutions that lose track of the children.
However, those who migrate with their parents are also in danger because they are thrust into unfamiliar surroundings with limited social services, and their parents are often busy working.
Wedgwood wants China to redefine child trafficking to include victims up to 18 years of age and children who are forced into work to pay off family debts. China currently defines victims of child trafficking as kids up to 14 years old who are sold or kidnapped.