Mustafa, 15, lives with his aunt, uncle and younger sister in Zarqa, Jordan. His uncle was tortured in Syria and now finds it difficult to work, as he cannot stand for more than a few minutes. Mustafa has become the family's breadwinner and works every day in a shoe store for US$ 7 a day. He is proud of his role providing for his family but it is also a crushing burden for a child.
Children like Mustafa, some as young as seven, must work long hours for little pay, and in some cases in dangerous conditions. In such circumstances, they are also forfeiting their future by missing out on an education. The majority of working children are boys, although some girls are employed, mostly in agriculture and domestic work.
Child labour has reached critical levels. UNICEF estimates that one in ten Syrian refugee children in the region is engaged in child labour.10 UNHCR and partners said it is one of the most widespread and complex of all child protection problems.
A recent assessment covering 11 of Jordan's 12 governorates11 found that 47 per cent of 186 households with one or more working family member relied partly or entirely on the income generated by a child.12 A UNICEF/Save the Children assessment in the Jordan Valley, conducted in April 2013, yielded a similar finding: 1,700 out of 3,500 school-aged children, or nearly 49 per cent, were working.13
The prevalence of child labour is likely to be even higher than reported numbers suggest. Many children work intermittently, picking up short-term jobs that may change from day to day. It is difficult to identify working children in both urban and rural contexts because refugee populations are often dispersed.
Given that child labour is illegal in Jordan and Lebanon,14 employers and refugee families are likely to hide the problem, fearing the ramifications of being identified. Further, some parents fear that if humanitarian organizations discover their children working, it might undermine their eligibility for financial assistance. According to UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt in Za’atari camp, “There are around 680 shops in Za’atari—all of them employ children.” Manal Eid, Programme Development Manager with War Child Holland in Lebanon, said that “If you go on the street, you see Syrian children working everywhere.”
UNHCR and partner staff throughout Lebanon and Jordan said that more boys than girls are engaged in child labour, undertaking a wide range of jobs. Of the 59 working Syrian refugee children interviewed, 97 per cent were boys. Of these, 43 per cent worked in services, such as in electrical shops, carpentry, rock quarries, motor shops, barbershops and restaurants. Thirty-nine per cent worked in retail, including clothing shops, shoe shops, sweet shops, supermarkets and street stands. A smaller number worked in construction and agriculture.
During field research, only two girls were found working—one in a vegetable store and the other as a hairdressing assistant. However, UNHCR and partner staff said that a number of Syrian refugee girls also work, mostly in agriculture or domestic work. The findings of a recent inter-agency assessment suggest that up to 80 per cent of Syrian refugee girls working in Jordan are employed in these two sectors.15
Many children work long hours in hazardous or demeaning environments. Dangerous forms of child labour are more prevalent in urban and rural areas than inside camps, where work tends to be limited to retail and service jobs.
Children working in construction and agriculture can be exposed to dangerous and heavy machinery, the harsh sun and pesticides. For those selling items or begging through car windows at busy intersections, the risk of accidents is high. During interviews, three boys in Lebanon, aged 10, 11 and 13, reported being injured at work. One was burned by hot oil at a restaurant, another cut his hand while fixing a car mirror and the third was beaten by the son of his boss.
Child labour is directly linked to the basic survival of refugee families. Many Syrian families fled with only what they could carry—a change of clothes; precious documents or photos; and for some, a baby or toddler who could not walk long distances through fields or across borders.
The savings, assets and possessions of most Syrian refugees were lost or destroyed. Their livelihoods came to an abrupt end, and their lives were essentially frozen.
Assessments on child labour, conducted both within Syria and in host countries, indicate that the primary reason children work is to support their families.16 An inter-agency rapid needs assessment conducted in Lebanon in early 2013 found that the money earned by Syrian refugee children was predominantly used to pay for rent and food.17
Some families do receive financial assistance from UNHCR, but still their resources are severely stretched. Assistance only reaches the most vulnerable, and is not always sufficient to cover all their needs. Many refugee families in Jordan and Lebanon have no alternative but to send their children to seek work.
Ayman, 15, wants to be a doctor when he grows up. But for the moment, his reality is very different.
He lives with his parents, aunt, grandparents and two younger siblings. His father cannot find a job. Ayman is the only family member working, selling gum on the street. He makes US$ 4 a day.
He said his job was “very difficult” and that he was harassed for being Syrian. A man even kicked him for selling gum during Ramadan. He would prefer to be in school, but it was Ayman himself who decided to work to support the family.
Ayman proudly looks after his younger siblings, and his face lit up when he described how he saved up enough to buy his five-year-old sister a new dress for Eid al-Fitr.
But there are few sources of happiness in Ayman’s own life. He has no friends and is embarrassed by his work, so has not tried to socialize with other boys in the building. When asked about his hopes for the future, Ayman said that he wants his father to find work so that he can go to school.
Some parents or caregivers face physical barriers to working, such as those who are elderly, have serious disabilities or were injured during the war. Refugee children are often the only ones in their families able to generate an income. UNHCR prioritizes such situations for financial assistance.
Even when accompanied by their families, many refugee children still need to work. Their parents or caregivers can face legal and social barriers to taking on employment themselves.
During interviews and focus group discussions, parents and children said it is easier for a child to find work and the ramifications of being caught are less severe. One mother in Zarqa, Jordan, explained why her son works while her husband does not: "A boy can take the abuse and insults, a man can't. So the men stay at home and the children work."
However, most parents whose children were working made it clear that they did not take the situation lightly. UNHCR and partner staff said that Syrian refugee children often work of their own volition to help their families, not because they are necessarily forced by their parents to do so.
For some Syrian refugee families, particularly from rural parts of Syria, it is part of their culture for children to start working at a young age. According to a 2012 assessment conducted in Syria by the International Labour Organization (ILO), 18 per cent of children between 10 and 17 years old were working.18 However, most of the children interviewed during field research only started working since becoming refugees, with several UNHCR and partner staff also noting this as the general trend.
In some female-headed households, mothers felt they could not work because it is considered culturally unacceptable, so they asked their sons to work instead. The 2012 ILO assessment similarly concluded that one reason behind the acceptance of child labour was that it allowed mothers to avoid working in the absence of a working father.19
Naser, a father of five in Mount Lebanon, was ashamed to admit that he could not find a stable job and that his 13-year-old son worked from 7am to 9pm each day, making accessories for handbags. Naser used to drive a tractor in Syria, but could only find temporary construction work in Lebanon. He brought US$ 2,000 in savings when he fled, but this did not last long.
Naser proudly noted that his son’s school certificates were among the few items he brought with him to Lebanon. His son was at the top of his class, and could even speak a little English. Naser said that he wished, ”from the bottom of my heart”, that his son could go to school. But with a family of seven to provide for, he saw no other choice.
An enormous burden falls on the shoulders of working boys and girls. Their childhood worries are often replaced with adult concerns. A senior social worker with Caritas, Mount Lebanon, oversees a team of five social workers, who together have worked with over 900 families this year. She said that when children work, it can lead to stress, causing them to “grow up faster than other children.”
They can also become aggressive towards their parents, she said. They feel entitled to act in this way because they are now providing for their family.
According to Shadi, 16, who lives in Irbid, Jordan, “At any moment a Jordanian police car can pick you up and throw you in Za’atari or jail.”
Child labour is illegal in both Jordan and Lebanon, and running afoul of the law was a major concern raised by working boys during focus group discussions in both countries. During individual interviews, two boys in Jordan reported that they had previously been arrested and held for over five hours. One had been working in a cafeteria, the other in a motor shop.
UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt said that his main concern with regard to child labour in Za’atari camp is that boys could slip into the world of smuggling, where they can be used as decoys, distracting the police, for example, while adults smuggle goods out of the camp. Trenches have recently been dug to prevent vehicles from getting in and out of the camp, but smugglers are trying to use children to fill them in.
A group of 12- to 16-year-old boys in Jeb Jannine, Lebanon, were asked what they would like if they could change one thing in life. Their answers tended to be rooted in financial concerns. One wanted money to pay rent, since this would make his life entirely different. Another said that getting a job was his most important concern. All the boys agreed that their number one desire is to go home.
One 12-year-old boy working in carpentry said he wanted “a different job, any job.” His issue was not the nature of the job, nor the conditions of his work, but the simple fact that he did not earn enough to pay his family’s rent.
Many working boys accept their fate as providers for their families. A 14-year-old boy in Jeb Jannine, Lebanon, said that his 12-year-old brother goes to school while he works in a rock quarry. He described the situation as “a matter of circumstance and luck.”
UNHCR provides financial assistance to help vulnerable Syrian refugee families cover urgent and basic needs, including medical expenses and rent. This can prevent families from resorting to negative coping strategies, such as taking their children out of school to work.
In Jordan, UNICEF and its partners are working to move 1,700 children from the labour force to the education system, by providing cash assistance to their families to compensate for lost income.
Individual case management is a core aspect of the child protection response in both Lebanon and Jordan. UN agencies and their partners have established functioning referral systems throughout both countries to identify children who face protection risks, manage their cases and refer them to appropriate services.
Case managers and social workers visit refugees in their homes to assess their needs. In addition to providing social counselling and emotional support, they develop an action plan with families to promote their children’s safety and ensure that they can attend school or take part in other educational services. Where possible, they work together to remove children from the work force, or at least minimize the negative effects of working. In serious cases of violence, abuse or neglect, national authorities become involved.
Case managers and social workers emphasize to parents the importance of education, the potentially harmful effects of child labour and the impact that domestic violence has on children. Given the pressing financial needs of many families, it is often not possible to find a way for children to stop working. In such situations, case managers also interact directly with children’s employers to minimize the risks they face in the workplace. This can include providing materials to improve their safety at work and negotiating with employers to ensure they can access at least informal education alongside work.
Where necessary, case managers and social workers refer children to UNHCR and partners for specialized services such as health care, psychosocial support, or legal advice. In certain cases, they might also help families to access financial assistance, or provide in-kind donations from private donors, such as clothing or toys. Case managers and social workers follow up regularly with children and their families and monitor implementation of the action plan.
Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon can work as volunteers through UNHCR, partners and local organizations to spread information among the refugee community about issues facing children, raise awareness about available services, provide a support network, and identify and refer children in need of help to UNHCR and partners.
In Jordan, more than 950 Syrian refugees and Jordanians volunteer on 99 child protection committees: 53 in camps, and 46 in host communities. These men and women have reached out to more than 17,000 Syrian refugees. In Lebanon, UNHCR is working to increase the number of refugee outreach workers deployed throughout the country from 106 to 200, the majority of whom will be women.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
~ Nelson Mandela ~
It's all of our responsibility to protect the children of Syria, to tell their stories, and raise awareness about their plight, until they can go home. Please consider donating (or supporting), connecting, and sharing.
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Syrian Refugee Children
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.