“In many cases, refugee families lacking financial resources send their children to work to ensure survival. In both Jordan and Lebanon, the researchers found children as young as seven years working long hours for little pay, sometimes in dangerous or exploitative conditions. In Za’atri refugee camp, Jordan, most of the 680 small shops employ children. An assessment in 11 of Jordan’s 12 governorates found nearly one-in-two refugee households surveyed relied partly or entirely on income generated by a child.” – United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Press Release

Image courtesy of evrensel.net

Image courtesy of evrensel.net

After the outbreak of civil war in Syria in May 2011, 9 million people have been displaced, 2.5 million have fled to the neighboring countries including Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Those who have suffered are mainly civilians, and special attention is being given to displaced children. There are currently over 1.5 million registered refugee children awaiting registration. It is important that the children can be registered so that officials can gather more identifying information about them and insist on the protection of the refugees.

While Turkey received lots of refugees, it still does not give them the ‘refugee status,’ which gives the refugees the right to work and the ability to demand and pursue their rights such as health, education, and housing from the state. Lately, it also closed the border partially to the refugees fleeing ISIS. On the other hand, Lebanon limits the number of people entering and chooses whom to give refugee status. Since the camps are not open to the international public, it can be hard to measure or define the situation of the children living there. Furthermore, this situation creates a ‘limbo’ for the children who come as refugees, and do not have a definite future or a place to go. In the cases where the refugees do not speak the same language as the local people, adapting to the culture and country is harder for them. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for children to study, focus on their future or establish lives. This is a larger discussion topic concerning the refugees, but the indefiniteness of refugee status and limitations by governments makes life much more difficult for the most fragile group: the children.

Leaving aside the registration problems and the social services to be provided by the states, children face schooling problems and are forced to work illegally. While many international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and its programs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), are active in the area improving human rights conditions, the states receiving refugees seem to be ineffective dealing with the child labor. According to The Week contributor Jonathan Merritt,

“… Many displaced Syrian children experienced physical trauma, including rampant child labor, recruitment by armed groups, and early marriage for young girls.”

Most the refugees received by neighboring countries are women with children, and many of the families depend on the small amounts of money they receive from UNHCR. When this money is not enough, families send their children to work illegally to bring in more income. According to The Guardian, in Turkey, the Syrian refugees increased the child labor boom.

Currently, refugees are not allowed to get work permits. In some families, the fathers are hurt and unable to work, mothers lack skills to find jobs, or the cost of living is more expensive than their home countries, so children drop out of school and work up to 14 hours each day. Although child labor is illegal, it is still highly visible. While underage children are not allowed to work, many of the Syrian children who escaped to Turkey are working to feed their families. Similarly, in Lebanon it is illegal for the children under 15 years of age to work, however many of the Syrian refugee children are working instead of attending school. As the state only monitors formal employment sectors, informal sectors such as crafting and small-scale manufacturing, are left unmonitored and continue to violate the law.

Additionally, the state does not provide adequate inspection services for workplaces, and existing loopholes in the labor laws go unenforced leaving workplaces able to employ children. In these cases, the working children are much more susceptible to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Nations receiving Syrian refugees have to be careful with the labor laws and their implementation, in particular, when exacerbating the existing child labor violations. In all three countries, underage working is illegal, but the problem is not being solved because the governments do not inspect the workplaces. This does not incentivize employers to create opportunities for the refugees or provide better workplaces. This is not only important from the Syrian refugee children’s perspective, but also for all children in these countries who are forced to work underage or drop out of school to work. Still, immediate action is required for the Syrian refugee children. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres stated, “If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war”.

Cansu Aydin '15

Cansu Aydin '15

Cansu Aydın '15 is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs as a Fulbright student from Turkey. Her concentration is Human Rights and Social Justice. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the Middle East Technical University (METU). Previously, she has written articles in the Hariciye Journal of METU Foreign Policy and International Relations Club. She voluntarily worked with UNICEF and Ministery of Social Services as a peer educator and co-chair of the Ankara Child Rights Committee for a long time. She has wide amount of experiences with civil society organizations and been active in the area.
Cansu Aydin '15

Written by Cansu Aydin '15

Cansu Aydın '15 is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs as a Fulbright student from Turkey. Her concentration is Human Rights and Social Justice. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the Middle East Technical University (METU). Previously, she...
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1 Comment


Very interesting and informative article. Thank you. The last quote describes well the terrifying consequences of using child labor. However, it looks like these families are probably in very difficult situation to send their children to work instead of school, though they cannot be justified. If the workplaces don’t hire these children, they cannot afford to go to school anyway. In my opinion, this is a problem that can only be eliminated through increased aids to the refugee families and helping the parents to support their family. Probably governments can start with giving these people refugee status.


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