BEIRUT: Ahmad (not his real name) is one of hundreds of thousands of children working in Lebanon, a number that includes increasing numbers of Syrian refugees.
On Thursday, the World Day Against Child Labor, he could be seen bagging and carrying groceries at a popular grocery store chain in Beirut where he collects no salary, living solely off customer tips. He works nearly 12 hours a day, and recently injured his leg on the job but could not afford to stay home.
At 16, Ahmad bristles at the word “child.” “We’re young men,” he says, thanking God he and his brothers have work.
Nevertheless, he has been out of school since he and his siblings came here from Syria seven years ago.
When asked how he is treated by his employers, he makes a face to indicate “badly.”
“I would never go back to school,” he says of his hopes for the future. “I want to leave, go to Germany or Istanbul where I have an uncle.”
Ahmad asked that his name and the details of his employer be withheld, fearing he would lose his job.
International advocacy groups marked Thursday by calling on the international community to boost social protection for children to keep them out of the work force.
Organizations working in countries like Lebanon that have been affected by the Syrian war also pled for more funds to address the refugee crisis, which has exacerbated child labor in the region.
More than 2.5 million Syrians have registered as refugees in neighboring countries, including 1 million in Lebanon, and many more displaced who have not registered. Many new arrivals struggle to find work in Lebanon’s already weak economy, where they compete for the lowest paid jobs with Syrians that have been doing unskilled labor in the country since before the war.
As the war in Syria grinds on and aid falls short, more and more Syrian families are sending their children out to find work.
“We come across families who do not know how to make ends meet anymore and as a result their children end up engaged in the labor market,” says Johanna Mitstherlich of CARE International in Jordan.
Mitstherlich stressed that this was in most cases a “last resort” for parents desperate to feed their families.
“Some of the children are telling us that the worst part is having to go home and see their parents’ hearts break over and over again,” she says.
But attracting funding becomes more difficult with time as the public and donors become inured to the overwhelming need of refugees.
“Underfunding leads to cuts [in services], because there simply isn’t enough money to help everyone,” said Mitstherlich. “We have to have good ideas, and be creative and louder [with our funding appeals].”
According to the International Labor Organization, the total number of child laborers worldwide fell from 215 to 168 million between 2008 and 2012, 40 percent for girls and 25 percent for boys. Today, there are 9.2 million child laborers in the Middle East and North Africa.
Despite an overall decline, more needs to be done to address this global scourge, the ILO said in a statement Friday. “There is no secret as to what needs to be done,” the statement quoted ILO Director-General Guy Ryder saying. “Social protection, along with universal compulsory, formal, quality education at least up to the minimum age for work, decent work for adults and youth of working age, effective law and strong social dialogue together provide the right response to child labor.”