The Syrians have been identified by the United Nations as the world’s largest refugee population and neighbouring Lebanon currently hosts 1,133,000 Syrian refugees (thus constituting more than a quarter of the country’s population), of which more than half are under 18 years of age. Many adult men remained in Syria either to protect their businesses or houses, or to join the fighting forces, leading to vulnerability of Syrian women and children, who are being subject to risks of sexual violence, child marriage, child labour, and illicit activities.
Since 2011, the influx of Syrian refugees into the country has vigorously impacted the labour situation. The events in Syria have polarised the Lebanese political and sectarian divisions and it has furthermore created an increasing reluctance among the political actors to compromise on sensitive issues. Despite some progress to improve the policy framework for human rights protection and refugees’ rights, Lebanon is continuously falling short of international benchmarks.
Deteriorating socio-economic conditions and non-attendance in school are important antecedent factors to the rise of child labour in the country. Given the prolonged duration of the Syrian crisis and worsening living conditions coupled with the sharp increase in the total number of Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon, it is expected that the number of working children will rise. The Lebanese Ministry of Labour has increased its 2006 estimate of 100,000 child workers in the country to 180,000.
NUMBERS AND FACTS
UNICEF estimates that one in ten Syrian refugee children are engaged in child labour, but the prevalence is probably even higher since many children work intermittently, picking up short-term jobs that may change from day to day. It is furthermore difficult to identify working children in both urban and rural contexts because refugee populations are often so dispersed. Since child labour is illegal in Lebanon, employers and refugee families are hiding the problem, fearing ramifications if identified. A recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows that half of the Syrian 10-14 years olds are currently looking for work and furthermore, that a majority of the Syrian working children are boys.
Despite being a party to the ILO fundamental treaties on child labour, the government has its mandate in the formal sector of the economy, but much of the child labour is occurring in the informal sector, street trades, and family-based agriculture, these being the branches in which the Syrian refugee children are mostly working. Many children work in hazardous or demeaning environments for long hours. Dangerous forms of child labour are more usual in urban and rural areas than inside camps, where the work tend to be limited to service and retail jobs. Children in construction and agriculture risk being exposed to dangerous and heavy machinery, harsh sun and pesticides; for those children selling items or begging through car windows at busy intersections, the risk of accidents is high.
WHY CHILD LABOUR?
Child labour can be directly linked to the basic survival of refugee families: the principal reason for Syrian parents in Lebanon sending their children to work is to provide essential support for the household, the second reason being working because of the absence of a breadwinner. Some parents are physically barred of working, for example those who are elderly, have serious disabilities or were injured during the war. Refugee children are often the only ones in their families who are able to generate an income.
Since child labour is closely connected to school-enrolment, it is important to note that several studies reveal that enrolment of Syrian students in Lebanese schools is low in all school levels. During 2012-2013 only 31% of Syrian children attended school, setting children up for being exploited by employers looking for cheap labour. The main reasons for low enrolment rates appear to be due to the lack of financial resources and lack of places in nearby schools.
Another noteworthy cause behind the child labour is that for some Syrian refugee families, particularly from rural parts of Syria, children working at a young age is part of their culture. In 2012, 18% of children between 10 and 17 years in Syria were working. Also, in some female-headed households, mothers feel that they cannot work because it would be considered as culturally unacceptable, thus asking their sons to work instead. Another reason can be quoted from a Syrian mother in Jordan: “A boy can take the abuse and insults, a man can’t. So the men stay at home and the children work.”
- U.N.H.C.R., Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal (Apr. 22, 2014) available at http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122
- I.L.O., Regional Office for the Arab States, Assesment of the Impact of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and their Employment Profile (Apr. 1, 2014) available at http://www.ilo.org/beirut/publications/WCMS_240134/lang–en/index.htm
- I.L.O., Regions: Arab States: Countries covered: Lebanon (2014) available at http://www.ilo.org/beirut/countries/lebanon/lang–en/index.htm.
- U.N.H.C.R., The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis, Children at Work, available at http://unhcr.org/FutureOfSyria/children-at-work.html [hereinafter: Children at Work].
- I.L.O., Labour Standards, Normlex, Ratifications for Lebanon, available at http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:11200:0::NO:11200:P11200_COUNTRY_ID:103147
- I.L.O., Regional Office for the Arab States, National Study on Worst Forms of Child Labour in Syria (Apr. 11, 2012) available at http://www.ilo.org/beirut/publications/WCMS_204043/lang–en/index.htm.