Fears for Syria’s lost generation escalate amid funding gap

Children as young as six are contributing to the family income in Syria and among refugee families in Jordan

With 2.7 million children currently out of school and many of them forced to join the labour market to support their impoverished families, Syrians are facing the threat of a lost generation amplified by the country’s deteriorating humanitarian crisis and lack of funding.

A recent report by the UN’s children agency UNICEF and Save the Children found that inside Syria, children are contributing to the family income in more than three quarters of surveyed households. In Jordan, close to half of all Syrian refugee children are now the joint or sole family breadwinners, whereas in some parts of Lebanon, children as young as six-years-old have joined the workforce.

The lack of funding “means families feel their needs are not catered for so they push their children into labour and marriage,” Juliette Touma, spokesperson at UNICEF, told Philanthropy Age.  “If we are not able to provide more assistance to these families and help them with their livelihoods, we will see more children forced into work, out of school and into child marriage, and more families becoming desperate and getting closer and closer to a lost generation.”

The report sheds light on a murky subject. For the children who work in Jordan, for example, a majority toil six or seven days a week for a salary of between $4 and $7 a day, exploited as cheap labour by employers. Before the conflict began, landowners in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley paid migrant farm workers $10 for five hours work; children who work alongside adults now get $4 for an entire day.

Children who work are more likely to drop out of education, dimming their future prospects. More than one third of children working in the Bekaa Valley can’t read or write, compared to pre-war literacy rates in Syria of more than 90 per cent.

“As long as violence and conflict are ongoing in Syria, we will have this threat among us and child labour is one side of it,” said Juliette Touma, spokesperson at UNICEF.

“We are seeing a long-term crisis of more than four years of humanitarian disaster and it’s not going away. Displacement comes with it and a huge volume of humanitarian need and with that comes the requirement for funding.”

UNICEF estimates there are two million children currently living outside Syria as refugees. Unemployment rates among Syrians in their country has surged from 14.9 per cent in 2011 to 57.7 per cent, forcing around 65 per cent into extreme poverty. The economies of neighbouring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have also suffered due to the influx of 4 million refugees.

Children most at risk are those involved in armed conflict, sexual exploitation and illegal work such as organised begging and child trafficking, according to the study. A spiralling number are also vulnerable to harmful working conditions, with almost 40 per cent of working children in Za’atari refugee camp reporting an injury, illness or poor health.

“We are asking for funding for lifesaving areas like health and nutrition, vaccines against polio and measles, and water purification, which are underfunded,” said Touma.

The situation is expected to worsen. The UN announced earlier this month it planned to cut food assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, delivered through the World Food Programme (WFP), due to a severe lack of funding. The WFP regional refugee operation has become 81 per cent underfunded, requiring an urgent injection of $139mn to stay afloat and support refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq until the end of the summer.

“If funding doesn’t come in during July we could have an even grimmer picture - more children out of school and forced to work,” said Touma.    

Photo credit: UNICEF