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Syrian child refugees, alone and exploited

Despite threats of violence, child refugees in Lebanon and Jordan often have to fend for themselves.

Last Modified: 03 Sep 2013 16:41
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Beirut, Lebanon - At just nine years old, Abdallah has had to create a new life for himself in Lebanon after fleeing his home in the Idlib province of northwest Syria, 60km west of Aleppo.

While Abdallah was able to escape the escalating violence in his hometown six months ago, his family did not.

"I lost my family in the war," he told Al Jazeera.

Abdallah told of how he was smuggled into Lebanon: "My uncle put me between the luggage in the back of a bus," as he said goodbye.

Once he arrived in Beirut, Lebanon's capital, Abdallah wandered the streets, homeless, until he stumbled upon a restaurant, which became his home.

He eventually met a Sudanese man who looked after him until the police were called. That phone call likely saved him from a rough life on the streets.  

Child workers

For thousands of Syrian children, this is the harsh reality of the continuing crisis in their country. To cope with extreme poverty, many families have had to send their children to work on the streets.

According to the United Nations, almost two million Syrian refugees have been forced to flee their conflict-ravaged homes. Of those, around half are children.

I also have three kids here at the moment whose family was raising them to sell them as organ donors. These are the type of things we face.

Maher Tabarany, The Home of Hope

As of August 30, there were 714,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. About 53 percent of them are children, according to Roberta Russo, the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon.

While there is no official data on the number of children working on the streets, it is estimated that it could be anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000.

"The children who work are mainly involved in agriculture, construction, carpentry, domestic work and working in shops," Russo said.

"Whatever work they are involved in, the conditions are usually deplorable," she continued.

Aside from long working hours in poor conditions for poor pay, there are concerns about the dangers they face on the street. "Concerns include a child's physical safety, exposure to violence and exploitation, including sexual violence, and the fact that most children working are not attending school," Russo said. 

The Home of Hope in Beirut is a non-profit organisation that provides shelter and services to abused, abandoned and orphaned children. Maher Tabarany, the director of the home, said that all 70 children living there are from Syria. The majority of them were found while working illegally on the streets throughout Lebanon.

Each child is brought to the home by a government order, which sets the conditions for the child's residence at the institution. "These kids do not have anything," Tabarany said.

"They come here to Lebanon with their families, the parents don't have jobs so the kids have to go out and work, selling roses or tissues, really anything to make money. We hear stories from the streets that you can't even imagine would ever happen."

Tabarany pulls out of a photograph of a 13-year-old Palestinian-Syrian boy who now lives at the home.

His stepmother left him on the streets of Beirut.

"He was working on the street and someone tried to rape him when he was sleeping on a high wall, near a beach in Beirut," Tabarany said. "He fell from the wall onto his head. When he was brought here, he couldn't remember the last time he ate; he doesn't know anything.

"I also have three kids here at the moment whose family was raising them to sell them as organ donors. These are the type of things we face."

A 17-year-old Syrian named Ghanima gently introduces herself.

"I came here 12 years ago when I was five years old," she said. "I was on the streets in Beirut. I have one sister here as well - she is 13."

Ghanima has not spoken to her mother in years, and she does not know who her father is. She is reluctant to divulge details about her time on the streets.

'I am a beggar'

A big issue for the Syrian children in Lebanon is that many do not have any official form of identification. This means they are treated as "non-persons" by the state, preventing them from getting a formal education or a permit to work.

In 18 months, the population of child labourers in Jordan has at least doubled.

Nick Grisewood, International Labour Organisation

"Eighty percent of our kids do not have any form of identification," Tabarany says. "They do not legally exist."

In Gemmayze and Hamra, affluent areas of Beirut, Syrian children roam the streets, shining people's shoes and selling all types of goods. In restaurants, it is not uncommon to spot young boys serving customers or washing dishes.  

One boy, who gave his name as Mohammad, sells roses on the side of a busy road in Hamra.

Dressed in a torn white vest, baggy jeans and sandals too big for him, he said in broken English that he fled Syria with his family around four months ago.

"I am a beggar, my family needs money. I work seven to seven every day."

An increasing number of Syrians cross the border into Lebanon every day, and the UNCHR does not have the resources to cope with their needs.

"At the beginning of the crisis, many parents considered the enrolment of their children in school as a priority," Russo said. "Now, we are seeing more and more dropouts, especially of girls, as the families can no longer afford to keep their children in school." 

Of the more than 350,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, only 34,000 are enrolled in school, even though around 200,000 are school-age. While the UNHCR is working closely with Lebanon to open schools for the children, they are severely underfunded.

Thousands work in Jordan

In Jordan, the situation is no better.

Nick Grisewood, chief technical adviser of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) project Moving Towards a Child Labour-Free Jordan, said the situation there was alarming.

The Jordanian government estimates that around 30,000 Syrian children are working in the country. 

It is illegal for children under the age of 16 to work in Jordan, but, given the situation, thousands have no option but to forgo an education and work long hours doing menial tasks.

They, too, face harsh working conditions and widespread exploitation.

"In 18 months, the population of child labourers in Jordan has at least doubled. You can imagine the impact that has on services that would normally be provided to working children," Grisewood said.

"It is a big, big problem. It is probably the biggest problem affecting children at the moment in Jordan.

"We need to encourage the parents to make sure their children stay in school. Enrolment figures are one thing but the drop-out figures are now becoming alarming."

Follow Sophie Cousins on Twitter: @SophCousins

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Al Jazeera
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