Almost two million Syrian children have been forced out of school, since the last academic year.
As the war continues well into its third year, more than one million children are now refugees, having fled Syria with little more than a glimmer of hope that they may one day be able to return.
While refugees are spread throughout Syria’s borders and beyond, there is a reoccurring theme for all: children are not continuing their education; they are working.
To cope with poverty and harsh living conditions, families have had to send their children to work.
How can families balance the importance of a child’s education with their economic needs?
The Jordanian government estimates that around 30,000 Syrian children are working in the country, despite the fact it is illegal for a child under 16 to work there.
Nick Grisewood, chief technical adviser of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) project Moving Towards a Child Labour-Free Jordan, says the situation is deteriorating.
‘In 18 months, the population of child labourers in Jordan has at least doubled. Normally a child labour population develops over a much longer period of time and in the context whereby you’re developing policies and programmes that will address the issue.’
‘It is a big, big problem. It is probably the biggest problem affecting children at the moment in Jordan.’ Children are working in various industries such as agriculture, construction, hospitality and domestic work. Exploitation is widespread.
‘There is clear evidence of Syrians being paid well below the minimum wage, if being paid at all. They are working longer hours, working without appropriate safety equipment and working for less,’ Grisewood says.
But as NGOs scramble to deal with the issue, questions remain. Why are so many children working? Given the poor set of options available, are we suggesting that they do not work? How can families balance the importance of a child’s education with their economic needs?
‘You have to take in the poverty aspect, education aspect and cultural aspect to understand the situation,’ Grisewoood says. ‘Child labour is tolerated more in Syria than it is in Jordan. Humanitarian organisations have been focusing on emergency services while Syrians are having to put food on the table.’
However, there have been attempts to curb child labour, particularly in Zaatari Refugee Camp. ‘We are quite strict on monitoring child labour in Zaatari camp,’ says Michele Servadei, Jordan’s Deputy Country Representative for UNICEF.
‘Back to school’ campaigns are enjoying some success. ‘There is a better ability to monitor the situation [in the camp]. Our main concern is in host communities.’
It is believed around two-thirds of Syrian school-aged children in Jordan are not receiving any education. Of the 30,000 school-aged children who live in the camp, 12,000 are registered for school. ‘There is a lot of pressure in host communities,’ Servadei says.
‘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.’
Elsewhere, one common practice that has been successful in reducing child labour is a cash transfer system, which is used throughout Latin America. The scheme aims to replace the income lost by the child ceasing work. A child’s allowance is paid to their family on the condition that they can prove their child of school age is enrolled in school and attending classes.
Lebanon is home to more than 350,000 Syrian refugee children, up to 70,000 of whom are thought to be working.
UNICEF carried out a pilot project earlier this year involving 30 children, paying out $25 per child, per month. Working Syrian children were identified through the Islamic Charitable Association who would contact their families and propose the ‘rent assistance’ cash entitlement.
‘So, you might have the funding to the cash transfer programme for 12 months, but then what? The Bolsa Familia (social welfare program of the Brazilian government) is funded by the state and is a national protection system. But with the refugees, the funding is not guaranteed, so if it runs out next year, what happens then? In all likelihood the children will leave school and go back to work.’
In Lebanon, the problem is more pronounced. It’s home to more than 350,000 Syrian refugee children, up to 70,000 of whom are thought to be working.
Roberta Russo, the UN’s refugee agency spokesperson in Lebanon, says working conditions are usually deplorable. They are concerned about physical safety, exploitation and sexual and physical violence. The UNHCR does not have the resources to cope with their needs.
‘This is all happening in a very challenging situation for the Jordanian government who are obviously struggling to provide services, not only for the Syrians, but also to ensure that their citizens continue to get the level of good quality public services they’ve enjoyed up until now,’ Grisewood says.
Both the ILO and UNCIEF believe that encouraging children to attend school at the grassroots level and providing more support to families is crucial in tackling the issue.
‘Enrolment figures are one thing but the dropout figures are becoming a little bit alarming now,’ Grisewood says.
‘Much more attention needs to be placed on the child and we need to ensure the family gets the support it needs,’ adds Servadei.