The Lebanese government does not recognize the Syrians in Lebanon as refugees. Being recognized as refugees would give them the right to work, but for now only those with proper residency permits are allowed to work, and those without are forced to find low pay menial and dangerous jobs. Lebanon also refused to let the UNHCR set up formal refugee camps, fearing that these would be too permanent. Instead, there are now approximately 1400 informal camps on farmers’ fields where each family must pay rent. Families do not have any legal or safe ways to support themselves, so the resulting amount of exploitation is horrifying.
In many places you will see Syrian men standing around waiting for work. If they are needed they will be picked up by Lebanese middle men to work on a construction site for a day or two for a low amount of pay which they may or may not even receive. Women beg on the streets with their children for a few coins. Also, some landlords and employers force or coerce female refugees into providing sexual favours in order to provide food and shelter for their families. Just recently, Lebanese security forces freed 75 women, most of them Syrian, from sexual slavery in Beirut.
Children are also being forced into prostitution. Two male volunteers from Canada arrived to meet me in Beirut. They arrived late at the airport and checked into a hotel. They had such freaky run-ins with sketchy people on their first night that they actually moved the furniture in their room to bar the door in order to feel secure enough to sleep. The thing that freaked them out the most was the persistent offer of a child prostitute.
It is estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of Syrian refugee children are working, with child labour rates even higher in the Beqaa Valley. Aside from being a good source of cheap labour, children are less risky to hire than men, as the Syrian men are working illegally and have signed a pledge when they entered Lebanon with the government that they will not work and that they risk being sent back if they do. Men are also harder to pass though the security checkpoints.
I saw children as young as five working alongside their mothers in the fields picking potatoes. I saw children working dangerous equipment at a plastics recycling plant with no safety equipment. I saw children hoeing fields, carrying equipment, herding goats, selling tissues, selling gum, working in the market, making deliveries and begging in the street. All day, every day, in the hot sun.
The families, one-quarter of them without a father, are placed in such desperate situations that they are forced to send their children to work. And in many cases it is easier for the children to find work. However, they are also being exploited by others and forced into work. Landlords in the cities, in exchange for room and board, will drive the children to their “spot” for begging and leave them until the end of the day, periodically checking on them to make sure they are “working” and to collect their money. In the informal camp settlements, the leader of the camp, the shawish, arranges work for the women and children and demands a cut of their pay. Every camp has a shawish and the work is usually contracted with the farmer whose fields the tents are on, but the work can also be in factories, restaurants and shops. If a family doesn’t provide a workforce, they can be evicted from the camp.
The number of child marriages among refugee girls has risen from 12% to 26%. Families see marriage as protection for their daughters. At the camp where I was teaching, there was a child wedding on my very first day. Another is coming up in three weeks. Rama, one of the best English students, is betrothed to a man she has only met once. She is sixteen and the decision was made to ensure her economic security and lesson the burden on the family. Her family feels that marriage will protect her from the sexual harassment and abuse that goes on as well. I feel sad for her – she had so much potential. Now she will likely have five children, some of them raising themselves, while she has to go and pick potatoes with the other women. And although she won’t be moving far to be with her new husband, it is a forty-minute drive – she will unlikely be able to visit her family.
These desperate families are so easy to exploit that what everyone in the west is worried about is sure to come true one day. ISIS recruiters are already in Lebanon despite all the security checkpoints. They come to the camps in their cars, pretending to sell goods, and the men gather around the car and listen to them trying to entice them with promises of large paycheques. Luckily, in the camp I was at, the men ran them off and wanted nothing to do with them. As to the little boys I fell in love with, whose minds have yet to be shaped, well, let’s just hope for the best.
The future is bleak for all of these children. In order for there to be access to education, the host countries must allow the parents a safe and legal way to find work. Or humanitarian aid agencies need to step up and give families monthly financial support. Without an opportunity for an education, these children have no chance at life, and there will be no one left to rebuild Syria when the time comes.
As an outsider looking in and with much despair, I fear this won’t be happening any time soon. So I’ll be doing what a good Canadian girl should do and arrange for sponsorship to get as many children out as I possibly can. The first will be one of the families I fell in love with at the camp: a family of seven, with five lovely children. All of them are so excited at the prospect of going to school. The oldest is hoping to become a children’s doctor.
As my granddaughter Hailey wraps up the school year excitedly awaiting the fun summer will bring, playing her DS games, planning trips to the beach, sleepovers with friends, family bar-b-ques and camping, my thoughts will be with those I left behind: traumatized survivors of war, in a world with no toys, two used outfits and a desperate longing to go to school, and impatiently awaiting the arrival of our new family.
We must never lose hope.
Farok, Yousef and Thorya have learned how to speak German.