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Internet helps find trafficked children in China

Wenle was snatched at three years old from his home street in Shenzhen, in the Guangdong province of China.

The little boy is just one of many children trafficked worldwide, taken for cheap labour or sexual exploitation; the United Nations (UN) Children’s Agency (UNICEF) estimates that as many as 1.2 million children are trafficked globally every year.

Often children are taken across borders into other countries, but in China most child-trafficking occurs internally. Chinese government statistics showed that 5,900 children were taken by traffickers in 2010, though some international organisations believe the number could be as high as 10,000 to 20,000 children per year. Many are trafficked from the provinces of Anhui, Henan, Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou to more prosperous regions along the east coast. According to the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, poor rural residents in these remote Chinese provinces often lack legal knowledge or the ability to protect themselves and their families, which makes them prone to victimization.

Over the last few years, the Chinese government has stepped up its response to this situation. A ‘National Plan of Action on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children (2008-2012)’ was formed at the end of 2007. This action plan aims to prevent, prosecute and reduce the numbers of trafficking cases. Various regions in China have set up anti-trafficking mechanisms, often in conjunction with civil groups and agencies and expanded publicity and educational campaigns. After a crackdown by police in April 2009, Xinhua news reported that nearly 6000 children had been freed from traffickers. The Public Security Ministry has also been building a DNA database which has matched over 800 missing children with their parents.

In many cases of child-trafficking, children are snatched as infants or toddlers, so they are too young to realise what has happened to them. Most of those snatched in China are boys, who are then sold to families without a son or used as beggars to make money on the streets. Some parents give up hope of ever finding their children in such a vast country. But this week, the Guardian’s Tania Branigan reports on the success of a private initiative to find abducted children and reunite them with their parents. A professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yu Jianrong, received a letter from the mother of a missing boy asking for help in finding her son. Through Sina, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, he urged internet users to take photos of street children and upload them. There are an estimated 80 million microblog users in China and Yu’s campaign gained more than 100,000 followers over the Chinese New Year, traditionally a time for family reunions. From the 1,800 photos of street children posted, someone recognised one of them as Wenle, now six years old. Peng Gaofeng and his wife have already been reunited with their son. In the China Daily, the grateful father was reported as saying “it’s a miracle….that could not be true without the help of netizens (citizens of the internet)”. Wenle is reported to be healthy and doing well at school, though Peng says the removal from his kidnappers has been “traumatic” since the little boy had grown attached to them. At at time when social media is in the spotlight for bringing together huge crowds, it is also heartwarming to see how it can also reunite one small child with parents who had tried for three years to find him.

Laurinda Luffman signature