Migrant pupils win their case;Briefing;International

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Hong Kong

Schools fear the arrival of tens of thousands of children from the mainland will affect standards, reports Katherine Forestier

Hong Kong schools are bracing themselves for a huge influx of children from mainland China following a landmark legal case for young migrants.

In what is seen as an important victory for human rights and Hong Kong's autonomy under Chinese rule, its court of final appeal ruled that all children of Hong Kong residents are eligible for the right of abode in the former British colony. This is contrary to legislation passed just days after the handover to China that modified Hong Kong's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.

Illegitimate children and those born before their parents came to Hong Kong will now be entitled to live there. A further 33,000 children who have already won the right of residence no longer need to wait for permits, which means they will be arriving in schools more quickly than anticipated.

The government, surprised by the ruling, has set up a task force to regulate the mass migration and to plan education and other welfare services.

The education department had planned to create 15,000 additional secondary-school places and 10,000 primary places for the next academic year, but will now need to cater for a "huge" number of illegitimate children expected to leave their mothers in the mainland and join fathers in Hong Kong. Estimates of the number of children entitled to move to Hong Kong vary from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand.

Schools are already having difficulties absorbing the 43,000 mainland children who have moved to Hong Kong since the return to Chinese rule. For example, recent migrants now make up 20 per cent of the pupils at the North Lamma primary school. Because of their lack of English, children aged 14 to 16 have been placed in primary classes.

Teachers must provide supplementary lessons every day to help them catch up. "It has increased our burden enormously," said Mr Tong Ping-keung, a teacher at the school. "These children find it difficult to integrate." Many did not speak the same dialect. Teachers anticipate that standards in schools will suffer, and social problems increase.

There is also concern that migrant children will not be adequately cared for by working fathers while their mainland mothers still have to wait years to join them. Immigration quotas limit the number of wives arriving a day to just 30.

Cheung Lai-wah, aged nine and one of the children at the centre of the test case, can now legally remain in Hong Kong. "I'm glad I can now become a proper Hong Kong person," the nine-year-old said. "I was so worried about it that I couldn't sleep last night. If I'd had to go back, I'd rather die."

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