Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled the crisis in their war-ravaged homeland, leaving behind family, friends and their livelihoods.
Escaping with little more than the clothes on their back and the memories of what they’re leaving behind, they have no option but to create new lives for themselves.
However, to cope with extreme poverty and the harsh living conditions, many families have had to send their children to work.
Recently the number of Syrian children registered as refugees topped one million as the conflict in Syria continues well into its third year.
According to the United Nations, there are more than 500,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan alone. And among those, the Jordanian government estimates that there are around 30,000 Syrian children working in Jordan today.
It is illegal for children to work in Jordan under the age of 16, but given the situation, thousands have no option but to forgo an education and work long hours doing menial tasks.
Nick Grisewood, Chief Technical Advisor for the International Labour Organisation project Moving Towards a Child Labour Free Jordan, says the situation in Jordan is alarming.
“The child labour issue is really tough. It is a big, big problem. It is probably the biggest problem affecting children at the moment in Jordan,” he says.
“One of the reasons for it being really tough is that there is a limit at the moment to the amount of financial support that can be given to the families.
“If kids are working, the usual reason is money. In 18 months, the population of child labourers in Jordan has at least doubled.
“You can imagine the impact that has on organisations that would normally be providing services for working children in Jordan.
“Humanitarian organisations are focusing on emergency services while Syrians have to work to put food on the table.”
Jordan’s Deputy Country Representative for UNICEF, Michele Servadei, says they are largely concerned about the children working in host communities.
“In the Zaatari camp, there is better ability to monitor the situation,” he says, adding that Back to School campaigns have been useful in limiting the number of children working in the refugee camp.“But there is a lot of pressure in host communities. In many cases there is no breadwinner for the family and they have rent to pay and food to put on the table. We need much more support for the children to get out of work and also to ensure the family gets the support it needs.”
Syrian children are largely working in the fields of construction, agriculture, begging and domestic labour, he added.
In addition, they are being subjected to widespread exploitation.
“There is clear evidence of Syrians being paid well below the minimum wage, if [they are] being paid at all. They are also working in much harsher conditions – working longer hours without appropriate safety equipment and working for less,” Mr. Grisewood says.
He adds that there is evidence to suggest that children are also being used in illegal activities.
And the situation is no better in Lebanon.
There are more than 350,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.
While there is no official data on the number working in the streets, it is estimated that it could be between 50,000 to 70,000.
“Whatever activities they are involved in, the conditions of work are usually deplorable,” said Roberta Russo, the UN’s refugee agency spokeswoman in Lebanon.
Concerns around children working are wide-ranging, she says, and “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.”
Only 34,000 Syrian child refugees are enrolled in school in Lebanon despite around 200,000 children being of school age.
There are similar problems in the education sector in Jordan.
“Enrolment figures are one thing but the dropout figures are becoming a little bit alarming now,” Mr. Grisewood says, adding that child labour in Syria is more tolerated than in Jordan.
We need to encourage not only the children but also the parents to ensure their children stay in school.
Despite the Jordanian government being quite generous with the services it is providing to Syrians, there are still issues surrounding education, including transportation to and from schools, quality of education and finding enough teachers.
Mr. Grisewood adds: “This is a very challenging situation for the Jordanian government who are obviously struggling to provide the services that are required not only for Syrians, but also to ensure that their [own] citizens continue to get the level of good, quality public services they’ve enjoyed up until now.”
But while Syrian children continue to work in deplorable conditions, some Jordanians and migrant workers feel priced out of the job market.
“As soon as you have a labour market source which is prepared to work for less and under worse conditions, that’ll obviously create a bit of a situation for employers in the informal sectors,” Mr. Grisewood says.
“The situation is creating tensions within the market.”
The author is a freelance Middle East correspondent
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.