Eight years into the Syrian crisis the living conditions of refugees continue to deteriorate. Many struggle to earn money, buy food and pay rent, with 69 per cent living below the poverty line of USD 3.84 per day and 51 per cent in extreme poverty on less than USD 2.9 per day. This has a negative impact on the lives of their children, who are often forced to take the responsibility of being the breadwinner for their families.
The worst forms of child labour
The situation is compounded by the inaccessibility of work to most refugee adults, and a reliance on informal, often exploitative work opportunities. Worse still, refugees’ freedom of movement is severely curtailed due to the barriers Syrians face in maintaining legal residency. This means that men of working age are often unable to venture far beyond their homes.
Many refugee children are exploited and forced to carry out the worst forms of child labour, defined as “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” (Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 182).
They are frequently exposed to heavy loads, unhealthy environments, long hours and dangerous machinery, and are at high risk of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
Carrying bricks to feed his family
One of these children is Rida, 14, who lives in southern Lebanon. One and a half years ago, he fled Syria when conditions in his home town deteriorated and his home came under fire. Together with his father, mother and two sisters, Rida sought refuge in nearby fields where they remained hidden for more than three days until the fighting abated and they could return home.
Rida soon realised that he could not stay in Syria if his family was to survive the dire living conditions they faced. His family paid USD 1,500 to smugglers to take him over the Syrian-Lebanese border. There he reunited with his older sister, Noriye*, who he hadn’t seen for eight years since she fled Syria at the beginning of the conflict.
“I need to send all my money to my family, otherwise they will end up on the streets”, says Rida. This compassionate and caring boy is devoting his whole life to working on construction sites, carrying heavy concrete bricks, moving timber and loading and unloading materials. Working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, he earns USD 13 per day that he sends home. This wage is high by comparison to others, as the average wage for a child working in Lebanon is about USD 4 per day.
“My father is old and, with the harsh situation in Syria, my family doesn’t have any means to make a living. I would sacrifice my whole life and always be tired, as long as I knew they were well,” Rida explains.
Dreaming of a life without war
Despite his huge burden, Rida lights up when he talks about his family. He misses them and only wishes that he could see his parents again soon. “Rida cares a lot about his family but he struggles and is not comfortable at work. It’s heavy on his body and he is always exhausted,” says his sister Noriye.
“I wish he could have a chance to live a dignified life where he could go to school and just be a child. His opportunities to get an education are long gone, like all the Syrian children who haven’t been to school the past few years,” Noriye explains. “Even if the war ends and we can return, everyone will be busy rebuilding Syria for the next few years and they won’t prioritise education, especially not for Rida’s generation.”
Looking back at the past eight years, Rida imagines what his life would have been like if the war had never happened: “I would be at home in Syria, with my family, continuing my education, being a child and eventually managing my own chicken shop. My father gave me this shop when I was young because he wanted to secure my future, and I dream of opening it one day.”
Protecting children is an urgent priority
Today, on World Day Against Child Labour, we are reminded that eliminating the worst forms of child labour – in particular, hazardous child labour – remains an urgent priority.
Humanitarian agencies and the international community have a responsibility to support and protect vulnerable children from harmful practices. They must uphold child protection policies, laws and regulations in addition to providing access to jobs for families and education opportunities – so that children are not forced to work, but are free to play, go to school and enjoy their childhood.
*Names have been changed in accordance with protection policies