Five homeless children have been found dead in a trash bin, where they probably suffocated while sheltering from the cold, authorities in southwest China have said.
The boys, aged about 10, were found by an elderly rag picker on Friday morning, the Beijing News reported.
An initial investigation suggested they died of carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly due to burning charcoal inside the bin, which measured about 1.3m by 1.6m. Temperatures had dropped to 6oC overnight and it is thought they had shut the lid to keep warm.
An official in Bijie, a city in mountainous Guizhou Province, told the newspaper that police are still confirming the cause of death, but have ruled out murder. Only three of the children have been identified so far. Their bodies remained unclaimed on Sunday.
Residents said the boys had been living in a nearby shelter they built from a tarpaulin, cement blocks and plywood, according to a man from the area who posted pictures of the bin online.
The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs said there were an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million children living without parental care, mostly on the streets of towns and cities, in 2008. That did not include children working on the streets with migrant parents.
Last year, the government ordered officials to place a higher priority on helping street children without parental care and to seek them out to provide help. It has also promised to build more centers providing shelter and basic services for them.
In December last year, the ministry launched a campaign to return most of them to their homes within a year.
Ma Li, who runs a shelter for homeless children in Jiangsu Province, told the China Daily that the deaths exposed the problem with existing provisions for street children.
“Rescue centers don’t have a long-term effective way to help these children, as they can only provide food and shelter for a maximum of 10 days. After that, the rescue centers are required to send these children home,” he said.
He said that most children had run away because they had bad relationships with their parents and might have suffered domestic abuse — making them reluctant to go to the centers for help.
Ma said a new system is needed to encourage non-governmental organizations, schools and individuals to participate in helping homeless children.
Dale Rutstein, chief of communications for UNICEF in China, where the agency has been working with authorities to help street children, said: “There’s been a strong effort to find children and bring them back to their home provinces. That’s only a small part of the issue.”
“The underlying causes really have to be addressed in a long term, comprehensive way,” Rutstein said. “The best approach to that is creating a child welfare system where parents can be assisted to care for their children better, and case workers are aware of the needs of the most vulnerable families and prevent those more serious outcomes. [China] is in its very early stages of developing a more modern child welfare system.”
UNICEF has been helping to train officials dealing with street children and the managers of relief centers.