Syrian refugees at growing risk of child labour

With few ways to work legally, refugee families are forced to find other ways to pay for food, rent and healthcare

Child labour is on the rise among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with donors paying too little attention to this growing scourge, anti-slavery experts have warned.

More than 1 million Syrians have crossed the border to Lebanon, where they make up a quarter of the country’s population. With few ways to work legally, refugee families are forced to find other ways to pay for food, rent and healthcare. As a result, child labour, forced labour among adults and early marriage are rife, Freedom Fund, a private donor fund dedicated to ending modern slavery, said in a report.

“There is high demand among Lebanese employers for Syrian and Palestinian children, as they are far cheaper than adults and more compliant,” the report said. “Refugees are forced into desperate situations to simply survive.”

Little thought has been given thus far by donors to identifying and tackling slavery and trafficking, the report noted.

Between 60 and 70 per cent of Syrian refugee children are working – with this figure rising higher in Lebanon’s agricultural Bekaa Valley, said the study. In urban areas refugee children commonly work on the streets, either begging, selling flowers, shining shoes or cleaning car windscreens. Young girls often peel garlic for restaurants for $1 a day.

The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates there are some 2 million children living outside Syria as refugees. In a report last year, the agency said close to half of all Syrian refugee children are now the joint or sole family breadwinners in Jordan, while in Lebanon children as young as six-years-old have joined the workforce.

One in five people in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee, with some 1.2 million refugees in total living in the tiny country. Unofficial estimates put the figure at 1.5 million refugees.

In Lebanon, most children are sent out to work by their family who are desperate for a way to support the household, said the report. The Freedom Fund also identified cases of exploitation where a camp’s ‘shawish’, or coordinator, lines up work for the children that is impossible to refuse. Often taking the form of agricultural work for the farmer hosting the camp, the shawish takes a cut of the child’s wages. One Syrian woman in the Bekaa Valley told the NGO: “The shawish and the landlord will ask that the whole family work. The child gets paid $3.33, the woman $5, and the man $12-15.”

In 2012, the International Labour Organisation estimated 85 per cent of working children in Lebanon – mainly, but not all, Syrian refugee children – were employed in the ‘worst forms of child labour’. This includes working in dangerous environments without protective gear, being overworked and being exposed to the sun from as young as three-years-old.

“With the exception of a small number of people who hold a valid work permit, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are largely prevented from legally working to support themselves,” said the report. The fund urged donors and host countries to work together to ensure Syrians fleeing conflict are properly recognised in Lebanon as refugees, so they can seek employment and their children attend school.

“By taking concerted steps to address the factors that contribute to slavery and human trafficking, Lebanon will be better placed to manage the prolonged humanitarian crisis,” said Nick Grono, CEO of The Freedom Fund. “This will deliver benefits for everyone within Lebanon’s borders.”