Le­banon wit­nesses rise in Syr­ian refugee child la­bor over past year

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Heba Kanso

TRIPOLI, Le­banon: When 13-yearold Mounir fled Syria for Le­banon with his fam­ily af­ter sur­viv­ing a rocket strike that nearly killed them, he thought he would be safe. In fact, he had swapped one form of dan­ger for an­other – sex­ual ha­rass­ment and ver­bal abuse.

With his fa­ther un­able to work for health rea­sons, Mounir had to earn money for his fam­ily sell­ing sweets in the city of Tripoli – a job that kept him out on the streets un­til 11 p.m., mak­ing about LL12,000 ($8) a day.

“It was very hos­tile – peo­ple used to call me the ‘Syr­ian dog’ and other things,” Mounir – not his real name – told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion. “I would get re­ally hurt, some­times I would just sit and cry. It was hu­mil­i­at­ing.”

Aid groups say more and more Syr­ian chil­dren like Mounir are hav­ing to work as poverty in­ten­si­fies among the about 1 mil­lion refugees liv­ing in Le­banon – roughly a quar­ter of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion.

The pro­por­tion of Syr­ian child refugees work­ing in Le­banon has risen to 7 per­cent from 4 per­cent in late 2016, ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Dan­ish Refugee Coun­cil re­leased early to the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

“It is sad to say that it is only go­ing to get worse,” said Bene­dict Nixon, spokesman for the Coun­cil.

“As long as house­holds are not gen­er­at­ing in­come, rates of child la­bor will con­tinue to in­crease.”

The United Na­tions and aid agen­cies warned last month that a “crit­i­cal gap” in fund­ing for Syr­ian refugees and host com­mu­ni­ties could lead to cuts in vi­tal ser­vices.

Glob­ally, con­flict and cli­matein­duced dis­as­ter have driven more chil­dren into work­ing in agri­cul­ture, which ac­counts for 71 per­cent of all child la­bor ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“House­holds in Syr­ian refugee camps in Le­banon, for ex­am­ple, are prone to re­sort to child la­bor to en­sure the sur­vival of their fam­ily,” the FAO said in a state­ment re­leased Tues­day to mark World Day Against Child La­bor.

Tanya Cha­puisat, spokes­woman for the U.N. chil­dren’s agency UNICEF, said Syr­ian fam­i­lies in Le­banon of­ten had no choice but to send their chil­dren to work.

“Fam­i­lies are at their break­ing point when it comes to debt, and so to be able to get their ba­sic needs they are send­ing kids to work,” she said.

Mounir’s mother Has­naa says she feels in­tense guilt but has no choice but to send Mounir and his 17-yearold brother out to work, de­priv­ing them of an ed­u­ca­tion.

The rent alone on the small garage where the fam­ily lives is LL280,000 a month.

“It feels like noth­ing is enough. Ev­ery­thing we have goes into pay­ing for rent,” she said.

More than three quar­ters of the refugees in Le­banon are liv­ing be­low the poverty line and strug­gling to sur­vive on less than $4 per day, ac­cord­ing to UNICEF, and less than half the Syr­ian chil­dren in the coun­try at­tend school.

Mounir knows his life is not like that of most 13-year-olds, say­ing: “A kid should be liv­ing a life of dig­nity and re­spect with no hu­mil­i­a­tion.”

Clutch­ing his hands, he re­called the times when men on the street would ap­proach him for sex.

“They tried to do bad things. I would not ac­cept,” he said, as he stared down at the ground. “This has hap­pened more than once to me on the street. They were all men. Of course I was scared of this. They would ask me to come with them and I would tell them I didn’t want to go.”

Even at 13, he said he was of­ten the old­est on the streets, where chil­dren as young as five worked along­side him.

Last month he found work closer to home at a bar­ber­shop, where he earns LL30,000 a week sweep­ing and help­ing the owner – though he still works 10-hour days.

His fa­vorite sub­ject at school be­fore Syria’s 7-year-old war cut his ed­u­ca­tion short was math, and he dreams of go­ing back to learn how to read and write.

“I want to be­come a me­chanic. I like fix­ing things like mo­tors,” he said with a big, dim­pled smile.

The pro­por­tion of Syr­ian child refugees work­ing in Le­banon has al­most dou­bled since late 2016.

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