Child Labor Among Syrian Refugees: A Closer Look at the Coercive Effects of Lebanon’s Refugee Policies
By Aaron Burroughs
Aaron Burroughs served as an undergraduate intern with the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice in Spring and Summer 2018. He now resides in Amman, Jordan.
Child labor among Syrian refugees in Lebanon is exceedingly present and, unfortunately, ordinary. An estimated 180,000 children are working in Lebanon, 3 out of 4 of which are from Syria . The conditions faced by children forced into child labor in Lebanon are harrowing, even by adult labor standards. In a survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee , over two thirds of Syrian children engaged in child labor are forced to work six days a week, over half of them work up to ten hours a day, and one in four work between 11 and 15 hours each day. These children, as young as six years old, typically work under dangerous conditions, with 60% of the children surveyed saying they have faced some form of violence in the course of their labor. Child labor that falls below certain minimum age requirements is a violation of fundamental human rights inscribed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child  and the International Labor Organization’s Minimum Age Convention . At the domestic level, labor under the age of 16 that “harms the health, safety or morals of children” or prevents the child from pursuing an education is illegal in Lebanon , but the prohibition is largely unenforced . While a formal prohibition on child labor is a crucial first step, to fully confront the issue, there must be a reckoning with the complex set of legal and social exclusions that create the conditions under which child labor among refugee populations occurs. To truly protect the rights of Syrian refugee children, Lebanon must ensure employment opportunities for Syrian refugees of working age and fair access to resources and services, easing the coercive economic conditions that necessitate child labor within refugee households.
The harsh reality is that many families in Lebanon, especially refugee families, are forced to rely on the income of their children to sustain even a minimally acceptable livelihood. In many cases, children are the main or sole source of income for households, due to restricted job opportunities and exclusionary legal statuses for adult refugees . While child labor is harmful to a child’s development and a violation of human rights, it may be a family’s last lifeline.
It should go without saying that life for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is extraordinarily difficult. An estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees reside in Lebanon, a country with a population of only 4.4 million people . 76 percent of refugee households are living below the poverty line and 58 percent are living in extreme poverty . Receiving a work permit outside the sectors of agriculture, cleaning, and construction is virtually impossible , leading 92% of economically active Syrian refugees to work in informal sectors where they are paid less than minimum wage and deprived of social protections . The economic precarity of refugee livelihood in Lebanon produces and sustains an epidemic of refugee child labor.
The international human rights regime has worked to eradicate violations of the rights of children and refugees. Lebanon’s refugee policy, however, is vague and insufficient. The state is not a party to any international refugee conventions, leaving absent a national framework for refugee rights . Domestic legislation regarding Syrian refugees does exist and is instituted on an ad hoc basis. However, the Lebanese government avoids the term ‘refugee’ as this entails binding legal actions, and, instead, refers to Syrian refugees as ‘displaced’ . We should understand these actions as tactics by the Lebanese government to evade any obligation to provide refugees permanent residence or tailored services. Aside from the stress mass inflows of people into the country would place on the economy and the country’s resources, Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance is threatened by foreigners, refugees or otherwise. The inflow of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon after the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, for example, is often cited as a prominent cause of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) . Overt anti-refugee sentiment is held by the government and many Lebanese citizens, making any issue regarding refugees both highly politicized and provocative. Lebanon’s vague policies act as a barrier to refugee integration and protection, working (unsuccessfully) to deter migrant flows and to avoid checks on the government’s treatment of refugees.
In May of 2015, Lebanon suspended the registration of Syrian refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), effectively abolishing the right to asylum as a legitimate reason for entry. The UNHCR registered about one million refugees since the start of the Syrian Civil War, but an estimated 500,000 more Syrians were not able to register . Subsequently, the government established a sponsorship system for unregistered individuals to obtain legal residency status. The sponsor may be a friend or family member, but oftentimes, sponsors exploit the dire circumstances of Syrian refugees, selling sponsorships at a steep price or sponsoring them for employment purposes, creating highly coercive sponsor-refugee relations akin to indentured servitude. The phenomenon of Syrian refugees facing mistreatment and abuse from their employers who extort their labor with threats to cancel their sponsorship is well documented . Additionally, many refugees cannot afford the $200 residency fee also imposed on them by the government, however, and continue to reside in the country illegally . Evidently, the Lebanese government has prioritized erecting obstacles for Syrian refugees to maintain their livelihood over abiding by international law.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon without legal status remain vulnerable to deportation , which is why many adult Syrian refugees have resorted to sending their children to work and limiting their own movement and visibility . Employers prefer to hire Syrian children because they are forced to accept far less pay than an adult and will complete more strenuous labor than any “Lebanese boy who wants to do this work” . While unauthorized work by a refugee adult can result in deportation due to heavy policing and constraints enforced upon them , refugee children engaged in labor are much less likely to attract retaliatory penalties from the state.
It bears mentioning that the contribution of refugee child labor serves to benefits Lebanon’s economy, and consequently the government has no true incentive to stop it. Refugee child labor avoids the political uproar of refugees competing for jobs with citizens. It helps local Lebanese businesses, both formal and informal, function at a low cost. At the same time, refugee families are able to scrape by instead of being forced to resort to petty crime or violence to sustain themselves. The rights of the children, of course, are subordinate to these concerns, and the best interests of the child fall by the wayside. For Lebanon to genuinely eradicate refugee child labor, it would have to stop treating adult Syrian refugees as a security concern and, instead, as human beings with rights, skills, and dignity, as well as recognize their productive potential to bolster the Lebanese economy. It must create opportunities for adult refugees to participate lawfully and equally as legitimate participants in the labor force. The formalization of the economy and refugee integration of the workforce have the potential to stabilize host economies and improve conditions for all workers . Additionally, the government should offer financial support and services to families whose primary wage earner is unable to work due to injury or illness. Alternative development strategies must also be implemented. The creation of special economic zones that grant work permits to refugees can foster refugee business and sustainable livelihoods, although they must be highly regulated to avoid labor exploitation and must be carefully framed so as not to legitimate and foment nationalistic and anti-refugee sentiment. Greater financial support from the international community is crucial to providing these opportunities through grants and loans and investment, as well as greater resettlement of refugees by countries like the United States. Once employment opportunities are made for refugees to earn a living wage, only then can children graduate from working in the streets to working in the classroom.
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