Children of the Syrian War

There are thought to be between 180,000 and 300,000 child labourers in Lebanon, many of them Syrian. For the immediate present, at least, there are no easy answers to stop child labour, or to conclude Syria’s devastating conflict. Taken together, with the bigger feeding the smaller, both calamities are on their way to destroying Syria’s future.

It’s still only six in the morning, but the sight is common place these days in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley: the first light of daybreak falling on children standing by the roadside – even as they were instructed to do so. Were it not for the tent clusters in the background, one would have almost thought the children waiting in the early morning cold were there to board their school bus.

The sad truth, however, soon arrives with the open back truck which comes by in a few more minutes. The truck is to take them to the harvesting fields, to bring in the yield.

This is the fertile east of Lebanon, but the children are not Lebanese; they are refugees from Syria, who, with or without their parents, have fled the war in that country.

These are Syria’s refugee children who, today, accept – in numbers that only increase with each passing day – the job of adult manual labourers, if only to feed their families and find some meaning for their broken lives. According to Maria Calivis, Regional Director of UNICEF, it is ‘a worrying phenomenon’ that mounts in intensity, with people arriving ‘more destitute than ever.’

With over a million Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon, fleeing the conflict in their country, Syrians now make up a quarter of the population of this tiny Mediterranean country. Forced to leave with only what they could carry, these refugees now live in desperate poverty. Work is not easy to come by, and many families are forced to send their children out to work to make ends meet.

In Beirut, the Lebanese capital, refugee children sell trinkets or clean shoes to eke out a living and support their families. One of the most harmful forms of child-labour is street-selling. Children as young as three wander the streets of Beirut and other cities selling items such as tissues, gum or flowers, or just begging. Often alone, and working at all hours of the day and night, they are vulnerable to theft, physical and sexual abuse and even trafficking.

To be sure, child labour is not a new problem, but organized child labour is, indeed, a much more recent – and troubling – issue that mirrors the worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. In Ms Calivis’ own words, the ‘invisible is becoming visible.’

It’s not easy watching these children, in their dozens, and in plastic sandals and fragile dressing, tremble in the chill of the dawn as they clamber on the back of the transporting truck. Holding fast to metal bars, as if to dear life itself, they rock back and forth in the vehicle that is otherwise used to transport livestock. Thus are they taken to a nearby farm where, in this case, courgettes are ripe for the plucking. Once at the farm, this bunch of young workers spread out into the lush green fields as the Syrian middleman, who organizes the labour on this Lebanese farm, shouts at them to get started with the work. The courgettes have to be plucked carefully for the stalks are quite thorny.

In other fields, where crops such as grapes or potatoes are grown, the harvesting work done by these children is even more difficult and dangerous. Aid officials speak of seeing children cut themselves with knives or run in fear from powerful combine harvesters that plough the soil.

Watching little children struggling to carry large buckets of fat green courgettes, Tarek Mazloum of the Lebanese charity, Beyond, which helps provide for Syrian refugee families, points out rather grimly that the situation is, indeed, quite bad. He remarks how every such family typically consists of six, seven or eight children with all of them working, right from the three or four year olds. Notwithstanding the plight of the young workers, Mazloum knows he cannot stop it by himself, for if the children did not work, their families would not eat. Under the circumstances, it is as devastatingly simple as that. The children are normally paid about $6.50 (£3.90) a day, but $1.30 of this will be kept by the Shaweesh, the coordinator who runs the camp and arranges for the children to work.

Prior to the Syrian crisis, it were Syrian migrant labourers and Lebanese men who worked the fields of the Beqaa valley. Now, however, they are tilled mostly by Syrian women and children at lower wages. But apart from lower wages, other ‘benefits’ for Lebanese farmers who employ these children are ominous. Says one Syrian refugee, Jneid Houssein, who is unemployed, while his son Ali, 12, and daughter Aisha, 11, work in the fields:

“Farmers prefer to hire kids because they can do anything they want to them. They can hit them if they want; they can make them work long hours. Men won’t stand for this.”

On the other hand, increasing unemployment among former Lebanese labourers is leading to rising anger against the hapless refugee population. While others like Calivis from the UNICEF can say that ‘it is up to all of us to find a solution,’ and that ‘children should be at school and not at work,’ the harsh reality on the ground helps them touch rock bottom, indeed; when Lebanon’s public schools opened recently, there simply was not enough space to include all the young Syrians.

In fact, UN officials say there are now about 400,000 Syrians of school-going age, but only 100,000 extra seats at schools around the country. However, in an increasingly rare act of persistence under pressure, the UN, working with other aid agencies, has now launched a ‘Back to Learning’ campaign which provides for informal education so that the Syrian children, at least, do not lag too far behind.

At the Bekaa Valley, it is routine now for the children to first finish with their work in the fields and then be taken back to their settlement where they help pitch tents on rocky ground, and arrange brightly coloured plastic tables and chairs for a makeshift open-air school. It is a moving moment to see the children return from the fields with aching hands only to sit down soon clapping them in accompaniment to some rhyme or verse they then pick up at their classes. Truth be told, such classes are not just to forget the pain of the morning, but the even greater trauma families escaped in Syria. The teachers teaching the children too are not unaware of the double function they serve. One vibrant young teacher, Azza, who is herself a refugee from the Syrian city of Homs makes this clear when she says: “We try to help them forget the past… We try to give them a time of happiness, of fun.”

The children would themselves put it more touchingly, when, for instance, the ten-year-old Rasha whose family fled Aleppo months ago, says with a heart-warming smile: “I like going to school… Its better in Lebanon – there are no bombs here…”

Presently these children are put up in tents of rough tarpaulin and thick sheets from advertisment hoardings. The land on which the tents are set is rented from local Lebanese landlords, often through Syrian labourers who have been living in these kind of informal settlements for years. To complicate matters further, unlike Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon has not authorized the UN to establish formal refugee camps.

For now, at least, Bekaa Valley’s refugee children, like Rasha, live with their families in a rectangular blue tent just behind the cluster of classrooms. Rasha and her brother Omar both work in the fields – something which their widowed mother has not yet adjusted to.

“I feel like my heart is being ripped out,” Rasha’s mother, Fatima, laments, making an effort to fight back tears. “But what can I do? If my children don’t work, we can’t live.”

At the rear end of Rasha’s tent, two young cousins who just arrived from Syria the night before sit listening quietly – a visible reminder that the refugee numbers are growing by the day and, with it, so is the problem of child labour.

For its part, UNICEF, Calivis says, is “following up with NGOs to ensure the work is not exploitative or hazardous…” Besides this, they have also started a campaign “to ensure parents are aware this is not the best thing for kids.”

Another solution suggested by aid officials is in providing financial vouchers for families, but that might be easier said than done. Given the current circumstances, even the aid officials themselves know that this will be a costly, and difficult, option that is not quite in anyone’s budget.

There are thought to be between 180,000 and 300,000 child labourers in Lebanon, many of them Syrian. For the immediate present, at least, there are no easy answers to stop child labour, or to conclude Syria’s devastating conflict. Taken together, with the bigger feeding the smaller, both calamities are on their way to destroying Syria’s future.


[Adapted from two reports on the Syrian child-refugee crisis which appeared in BBC and the Guardian]

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