Lebanon Forces Syrian Families to Decide Between Homelessness and Child Labor

Syrian refugee children at a half-built apartment block near Reyfoun in Lebanon, close to the border with Syria. Photo by ‘Trocaire’ on Flickr. CC by 2.0.

According to the United Nations, the Syrian conflict has displaced approximately 6.6 million people in Syria, and forced another 4.8 million to seek refuge in countries around the world.

Due to its proximity to Syria, Lebanon is one of the main destinations for those fleeing the violence. There are approximately 1 million Syrian refugees officially registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, while unofficial estimates put that figure closer to 1,500,000 people.

The Guardian has pointed out that refugees face tough living conditions. Only permitted to find work in agriculture, construction or cleaning, more than 70 percent of Syrian refugees reportedly live below the poverty line.

Studies suggest that the combined failures of the international community's unwillingness to meet its donation promises and the Lebanese government's policies are fueling poverty and forcing refugees to go “underground.”

An estimated 70 percent of Syrian refugees are living below Lebanon's Extreme Poverty Line: under USD $3.84 per person, per day. This is further exacerbated by the fact that refugee households are increasingly piling up debt, in order to meet their basic needs.

At checkpoints, women and children largely go unchecked, as it is the male refugee population that most concerns officials. With so many children entering the country and then the labor force, some employers have capitalized on the imbalance, hiring minors as  cheaper and more compliant workers. The ILO classifies the treatment of Syrian child workers in Lebanon as some of the worst forms of child labor.

According to the anti-slavery NGO Freedom Fund, about 70 percent of children refugees in Lebanon are forced to work for little to no money in order to provide for their families, with no real way out of this employment. In areas like Lebanon's Beqaa Valley in the east, some children reportedly earn as little as USD $1 per day for their jobs as fruit pickers at local farms. As one Lebanese municipal official put it, “slavery is happening everywhere.”

Some Lebanese policies have only aggravated refugees’ problems. In January 2016, Human Rights Watch found that residency regulations adopted a year earlier deprived most Syrians of their legal resident status. Only 2 of the 40 refugees interviewed in the study were able to renew their residency. This followed the government's decision in May 2015 to order the UNHCR to stop registering refugees entering the country.

These residency rules have an especially strong impact on refugee children, many of whom are not allowed to attend schools due to their lack of proper residence status. As of July 2016, about 250,000 Syrian children in Lebanon were out of school — more than half of the nearly 500,000 school-age children in Lebanon's Syrian refugee population.

Lebanon has, however, made progress on children's education. As Human Rights Watch explains:

Lebanon has taken important steps to include Syrian children in the public education system. Authorities have allowed refugees to enroll in school without providing proof of legal residency, waived school enrollment fees, and opened up afternoon “second shift” classes in 238 public schools to provide Syrians with formal education.

In 2014, Lebanon adopted the Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) policy, which has helped Lebanon increase the number of Syrian children enrolled in public schools to 158,321 by the end of the 2015-2016 school year. In 2016, Lebanon adopted a five-year RACE II plan with the goal of enrolling 440,000 Syrian children in formal education by the 2020-2021 school year.

But figures provided in the UNHCR's new report, “Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” highlight the fundamental flaws in the Lebanese government policies, namely the enormous obstacles presented by residency regulations. Only one in five refugee households stated that all members within that household were legal residents within the country — a slight but significant decline from 28 percent a year earlier.

International donors have also failed, falling short of goals set by the UN's Lebanon Crisis Response Plan. As of November 2016, only 50 percent of the crisis-response plan was funded.

Despite all these risks, many Syrian families see no choice, other than to flee their homeland and subject their children to labor abroad. Speaking to Human Rights Watch, Mahmoud, a refugee from Syria, said he had little choice about sending his 12-year-old son off to work. “If he doesn't work, my family will sleep in the streets,” he explained.

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