Child labor is illegal in Lebanon and Jordan, but children are increasingly working for low pay..
Traumatized by the atrocities of war, Syrian children continue to suffer in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon by being forced to work and being denied education or any normal childhood freedoms, the United Nations refugee agency said in a report Friday.
The war in Syria is creating a generation of damaged children. Launching the Future of Syria report, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said: “If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war.”
The report reveals the heavy toll Syria’s three-year civil conflict has had on children both inside and outside its borders. It estimates 385,000 Syrian children now live in Lebanon refugee camps, where 80 percent of these children do not go to school or have no educational facilities. The picture is equally bleak in Jordan, where 291,000 Syrian children live in refugee camps and 56 percent don’t go to school. Many children are either rejecting school or forced into child labor to keep families together.
More than 70,000 Syrian refugee families now live without fathers, and for 3,700 refugee children are living unaccompanied or without any parents. As families fall apart, many children take on the burden of finding money to support the family, and this is leading to physical and psychological problems.
Child labor is illegal in Lebanon and Jordan, but children are increasingly taking menial work for low pay. Their meager wages are sometimes the family’s only source of income.
Speaking to Mint, Kate Washington, a worker with Care International based in Jordan, described some of the problems these children face.
“Many of these urban refugees have settled in the poor areas of Jordan; their homes are most basic temporary building materials; some are living in former chicken huts, but they still have to pay rent. So young boys will often find work as laborers, cleaning, working in shops or illegal work. They work extremely long hour sometimes 12 hours a day for very little money. And we are now seeing young girls being married off to get money in for the family,” Washington said.
The UNHCR reports highlights the dangers of child labor, which are more prevalent in urban and rural areas than inside camps. In these areas, the work tends to be limited to retail and service jobs.
The reports warns that children working in construction and agriculture can be exposed to dangerous and heavy machinery, as well as hours in the sun and pesticides. For those selling items or begging at busy intersections, the risk of accidents is high. In interviews for the report, three boys in Lebanon, aged 10, 11 and 13, said they had been 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.
Although the report found high levels of child labor, it also revealed the exploitation of children, as rebel forces use refugee camps to recruit young fighters.
Refugee Camps used to recruit rebel fighters
Recruiting is banned in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, but new reports of rebel activities in the camp have emerged.
Andrew Harper, head of the Jordan office of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, which runs the camp, said he has heard reports of rebel recruitment but has seen no evidence.
Contradicting this, the UNHCR report interviewed young boys who claim Za’artari indeed has rebel forces recruiting children. The report stated: “Several staff working with refugee children said that they were aware of children returning to Syria for this purpose.”
It went on to say that concrete information on child recruitment is lacking, but during focus group discussions several boys expressed a desire to return to Syria to fight. One 16-year-old boy in Irbid, Jordan, claimed he has heard of boys being sent to Za’atari camp, trained to fight and then sent back to Syria. But he and the other boys who spoke about the issue said that to their knowledge, children under 18 did not fight but rather worked “distributing information.”
This month an Assoiated Press reporter visiting Za’atari found rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army looking for new fighters.
“Za’atari is an exporter of fighters,” Abu Salim, a former top Syrian army officer, told AP, “We see civilians maimed, our homes destroyed and our relatives jailed, tortured or killed, so we react by recruiting and training people to fight the tyrant government back home.” He spoke on condition he only be identified by his nom de guerre for fear of reprisals.
Salim, who heads the Free Syrian Army’s military council in southern Syria, said “a 40-day training camp for rebel fighters is conducted at a location in Jordan or sites in southern Syria.”
Problem of young boys in refugee camps
Refugee camps are not a safe haven for children, as increasingly children are facing grave dangers and violence. Even inside the camps, children are showing disturbing signs of isolation and psychological behavior problems.
UNHCR’s Za’atari camp manager, Kilian Kleinschmidt, described the boys in the camp as “premature adult men who have dreams about fighting, especially now with the war so present in their lives.”
He said that many of the violent incidents there involve children. With no school and the impact of the war surrounding them daily, violence between young boys is flaring up in the camps. For those too young for dreams of war, they are being drawn into an illegal world of smuggling.
Kleinschmidt said in the UNHCR’s report that his main concern with regard to child labor 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, he said.