(New York) - Over the past two weeks, Beijing municipal authorities have shut down more than 50 schools for children of migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said today. The schools’ closure – part of a campaign to close all unregistered schools for migrants by the end of September – threatens to leave tens of thousands of children without access to education, in violation of several of Beijing’s obligations under international law.

The campaign, which began four months ago, appears designed to discourage migrants from staying in the capital. In mid-September, city officials discussed expelling a million migrant laborers from Beijing for the duration of the Olympic Games.

“Beijing is spending over $5 billion to prepare for the 2008 Games, yet at the same time it’s denying a basic right to migrant workers’ children, most of whom are unable to access state-run schools,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Beijing appears to be moving ‘faster, higher, and stronger’ toward limiting – not ensuring – migrant children’s access to education, all in the name of the Olympics.”

On July 12, 2006, the Beijing Municipality issued the “Notice of the General Office of the Beijing Municipality People’s Government on the Work of Strengthening the Safety of Non-Approved Migrant Population Self-Schools.” That document set a deadline of September 30 for the “clean up and rectification” of all unregistered schools through “dispersion, standardization and closure.” According to the document, 239 unregistered migrant schools in Beijing provide education to more than 90,000 children.

In some cases, the Beijing authorities have dispatched large numbers of police to close particularly popular schools. On August 29, more than 90 policemen forced the evacuation of the Weimenkou school of Shijingshan district. Petitions to the Beijing Commission on Education, signed by hundreds of parents in support of certain schools and denouncing the brutality of the closures, remain unanswered.

The Beijing government has justified the wave of closures on the grounds that many migrant schools are unregistered and substandard. They quoted the lack of qualified teachers, inadequate or dangerous facilities, and noncompliance with hygiene regulations. However, school operators say that the authorities arbitrarily refuse them registration or impose unreasonable conditions, such as possession of half a million yuan, about US$63,000, effectively preventing them from gaining legal status.

The director of a school closed last month, which had served about 1,000 students, told Human Rights Watch, “All of this is because of the Olympics. They close the schools not because the schools are no good, but because they do not want this to attract further migration to Beijing. Of course I have applied for a permit to the government, but they never give it to you. Above all, they want to control and limit the development of these migrant schools.”

While governments have the right to license and regulate schools, China’s international legal obligations require it to provide all children with an adequate and nondiscriminatory education. China may not arbitrarily deny education to children of migrant workers.

“The reason self-run migrant schools exist is precisely because the government has failed to provide free and compulsory education for all as it is obligated under domestic and international law,” said Richardson. “Before closing down the only education to which migrant children have access, the government should guarantee their ability to enroll in state-run schools.”

Although the newly revised Compulsory Education Law, which came into effect on September 1, states that children of migrant laborers must be enrolled in local state-run schools, in reality administrative and financial hurdles bar most migrant children from enrolling.

Under Beijing education bureau regulations, only registered migrants who can produce the “five certificates” – a temporary residence permit, work permit, proof of residence, certificate from the place of origin, and household registration booklet – can enroll their children in state schools. An estimated 90 percent of migrant families do not have all five documents.

Even for those who can obtain the necessary documents, the cost of state schools can be prohibitive for poor migrant families. State schools may charge for transportation, meals, books or activities. Only 62 percent of the estimated 370,000 children of migrant worker families living in Beijing attend state-run schools.

On September 15, Science and Engineering University Professor Hu Xingtou and Beijing Duanfeng Practice Lawyer Li Fangping submitted to the Beijing municipal government a report that concluded, “On the face of it, it seems that all the … schools of Beijing have opened their doors unconditionally to migrant children. But the reality is entirely different ... The dream of equal access to compulsory education remains as distant as ever.”

“The Chinese government should ensure that all children have access to education by removing administrative and financial obstacles to school enrollment, and that migrant children whose schools it has closed are immediately enrolled in other schools,” said Richardson.