The Child Refugees of Syria

A 14-year old Syrian refugee, Yassan, works for over 12 hours a day cleaning for a business in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid. His daily earnings are half a Jordanian dinar per hour; which is, equivalent to less than one US dollar a day, throughout the week.

Reminiscent of his life in Syria, the young boy professes that he has no alternative, as he needs to earn enough to support his family of six.

A recent BBC report reveals his story and the fate of countless child refugees from Syria, who shares the similar fate as Yassan. Children as young as three years old are being increasingly exploited by farmers and business-owners in Jordan.

Though refugees from Syria have dispersed across the Middle East and further into Europe; Turkey leads demographically in registered Syrian refugees, hosting over 2 million people. Neighbouring countries, Lebanon and Jordan, trail not too far behind.

In Jordan alone, of the 1.4 million Syrians, roughly 650,000 are refugees. Hundreds and thousands continue to live in camps, while the remaining live in segregated accommodations.

Exploitation and slave labour

“Jordanian employers are exploiting the desperation of Syrian refugee families and their children,” says Diala al-Amiri, the executive director of a Jordanian NGO named Tamkeen. The organization advocates equality, justice and freedom; and strives to enhance legal aid, and human rights awareness for the marginalized members of society.

Investigators at the agency claim that they have “discovered children as young as three working alongside their parents and siblings on farms near the Dead Sea.” Work in the agricultural sector is not uncommon for many children and is often physically demanding.

Tamkeen has found that approximately 46% of Syrian refugee boys and 14% of girls aged 14 or above, are working more than 44 hours a week, while the legal age in Jordan is 16. Some work at fruit and vegetable markets in central Amman, while others carry out daily tasks such as collecting cans and plastic bottles in the city of Mafraq.

It is disconcerting to picture children as young as three years old working endlessly, often without pay, and under horrible conditions. Work lasts long hours under the sun, children are treated carelessly, and some agree to work for little or no money as long as their families are provided with sufficient shelter.

Vulnerability has these children doing what they need to in order to get by.

A call for legal action

In 2007, when the Jordanian government investigated child labour, it discovered over 30,000 children were employed in the labour market. Since the Syrian conflict, this number has skyrocketed.

At the time, the Jordanian Ministry of Labour shut down 213 companies. As for this year, 353 companies have been closed, and roughly 800 employers have received financial reprimand, having to pay a fine between 250-500 Jordanian dinars.

Despite these measures, the BBC report claims that Syrian children remain prime candidates for exploitation.

How has legal action not worked? Has regulation by the Ministry of Labour fallen short? Do fines need to be raised? Or must countries that receive child refugees should provide further long-term support to their families? And if so, how?

These questions are what the government and the public should tackle. Revisiting penalties for firms is one step, but having seen the increasing numbers in child labour, so is amendment of the law. NGOs such as Tamkeen should be encouraged to continue to spread their message to fight for the rights of young refugees by introducing programs that can help their livelihoods flourish sustainably.

Penalties for firms that breach the law, while effective, are a short-term solution to a problem that is clearly changing the long-term demographics of many neighbouring countries to Syria. Raise a one-time fee and a company can easily pay it off. Thus, dealing with the matter will require a different approach: something along the lines of a long-term solution that would potentially involve financial, educational and social assistance for families, to sustain healthier livelihoods, that are less susceptible to exploitation.

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