BEIRUT: Mohammad says he’s 13, but it’s hard to believe him. With his tiny, hunched form, cavernous cheeks and emaciated limbs, he looks closer to 8 or 9 years old.
Having fled Syria without his family, Mohammad works as a shoe-shiner on the streets of Hamra, beginning at 7 a.m. every day and working until 7 p.m. At the end of his 12-hour shift he will have earned a total of LL 5,000.
As the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon continues and the economic situation in the country declines, the number of child laborers is increasing.
Thousands of Syrian children are working to support their families, while the country’s declining economy has also had an effect on Lebanese and Palestinian children, who are increasingly expected to work.
Mohammad, who says he dreams of going back to school and studying to be a doctor, does a job that falls into one of the worst categories of child labor: work that exposes a child to physical, psychological or sexual abuse, puts their safety or morals at risk, or prevents them being educated.
But while the number of children like Mohammad who sell gum or roses or shine shoes on the streets has increased significantly in the two years since the Syrian crisis began, they represent a fraction of the true scale of the problem.
“What you see on the streets of Hamra or Gemmayzeh is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Andres Gonzalez, the country director of Dutch non-governmental organization War Child.
“Most children are working in workshops and garages and things. Now the conditions are even worse because the competition is so high.”
The total number of children engaged in illegal labor in Lebanon has never successfully been established.
An estimate issued by the Social Affairs Ministry in 2002 was recently increased from 100,000 to 180,000, but Hayat Osseiran, a child labor consultant for the International Labor Organization, says she believes the real number is probably closer to 300,000.
Lebanon’s population of just over 4 million has been swelled by over 1 million Syrian refugees over the past two years, many of whom arrive in the country with no papers, making it almost impossible to find legal work.
“Adults are not engaging [in the workforce], either because they’re having difficulty in getting work or [because] they fear that they would be arrested because they don’t have papers,” says Anthony MacDonald, chief of child protection at UNICEF.
“Very often children have become the main breadwinners in the household, which means they’re exposed to huge risks, huge responsibilities.”
There are two main factors forcing young children into work, explains Haifa Hamdan, War Child’s child labor adviser.
“The pulling factor is that they are from poor families, they want additional income,” she says. “And the pushing factor is that they are not able to go to school because the expenses are [increasing] and sometimes there are no places.”
Although education in Lebanon is supposed to be free and compulsory until the age of 15, the cost of registration, books, uniforms and transportation proves too much for some families, Osseiran says, and attendance is not monitored or enforced.
The result is that for children from poorer families, work is easier to come by than an education.
Reem, a mother of four who fled to Akkar from Tal Kalakh in rural Homs last year, says she can’t afford the LL90,000 per child needed to register her children, aged 5, 8, 9 and 10, for school. Her husband is injured and can’t work, and she has to find $200 a month for rent, she says, so she has no choice but to send her children to pick olives. She says she and her kids collectively earn between LL8,000 and LL10,000 a day, working from dawn until dusk.
Another woman from the same Akkar community of Syrian refugees says local farmers would rather employ children than adults, as they have more energy and never complain – even if they are verbally or physically abused. Money is also an incentive for employers – children are paid half as much as an adult.
“Only 20 percent of the adults are working, but 60 percent of the children,” she says.
When it comes to tackling the problem, Lebanon already has a good legal framework, Hamdan says, but the problem is the lack of implementation and awareness.
A survey of 1,500 children working in the southern suburbs of Beirut, conducted by War Child just before the Syrian crisis in 2011, found almost all the laws governing child labor were being flouted and that the children surveyed were totally unaware of their rights.
Labor inspectors were equally uninformed, Hamdan says.
At the time the study was undertaken, none of the Labor Ministry’s 73 inspectors were familiar with the child labor laws. War Child subsequently trained 19 of them, and now some 50 out of a total of 109 inspectors have received training in child labor legislation, according to Nazha Shalita, head of the ministry’s child labor unit.
As the child labor problem continues to worsen, local and international organizations are attempting to tackle it on a number of fronts.
Lebanon has committed to international agreements, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO Conventions on the Minimum Age of Admission to Employment and the Worst Forms of Child Labor.
After taking office in 2012, Labor Minister Salim Jreissati reactivated the stagnant child labor unit within his ministry as well as the defunct National Steering Committee for the Elimination of Child Labor.
He also issued Decree No. 8987: the prohibition of employment of minors in jobs that may harm their health, safety or morals, which details jobs unsuitable for those under 16 and 18 years of age.
But although Lebanon’s laws are increasingly coming into line with international standards, there is still a major problem with implementation.
On a practical note, UNICEF has begun using education as a tool to combat labor among refugees in the country’s tented settlements.
“We try to bring children out of the workplace completely but because we know that the problem cannot be extinguished overnight we try to mold our education programs,” MacDonald says.
“So in the morning we cater for the younger children and then for those who are working in the fields ... we’ve persuaded their families that they just work half a day and come to our programs in the afternoon.
“That allows us to at least begin to engage with them [and] to eventually try to look for other alternatives, but also accept that for many of them stopping immediately is not a reality.”
Several other plans are in motion to chart the growing problem and find a way to tackle it.
The ministry’s child labor unit is working with the ILO and the Central Administration for Statistics to conduct the first large-scale mapping of child labor in Lebanon, based on household surveys, Shalita says.
It is due to be completed by the end of 2014 and should reveal the real extent of the problem for the first time. UNICEF is also partnering with the ILO to conduct a countrywide survey of street children.
On a larger scale, the Labor Ministry and the ILO have teamed up to produce the National Action Plan to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labor by the end of 2016, which is due to be presented to President Michel Sleiman and other ministers and parliamentarians on Nov. 7.
It will be the first time a project of this scale has been attempted, Osseiran says. The action plan will detail practical steps for the eradication of child labor, including improved legislation, better access to education and a zoning solution.
It will be put into effect as soon as the funds come in. Some money is expected to be provided by the state and the rest by international organizations, Osseiran says.
The National Action Plan’s launch is coming at a critical time, as the urgency of the Syrian crisis has diverted attention and funding from long-term local problems such as child labor.
MacDonald emphasizes that working long hours can have tragic effects on children psychologically, as well as physically. “The children that we spoke to were already receiving psychosocial support for the trauma that they’d been through in Syria,” he says.
“But in some cases the child labor that they were undertaking here to survive was almost tipping them over – in the case of one particular child she just said: ‘I don’t want to live anymore.’”