The respected war correspondent, Robert Fisk, writes of up to 200,000 Syrian refugee children – some as young as five – working in Lebanon’s potato and bean fields or picking figs in the Bekaa Valley. Many of them are beaten with sticks in a situation perilously close to slave labour.
Each camp runs a vicious system of “shawish”, a network of venal Syrian supervisors who pay some children only 90p per day. Families have to rent one tent lamp for £6 a month, a portable television for another £6. Some even have to pay £60 a month to live there.
It is an utterly corrupt system, since it stunts the growth of Syria’s next generation and will leave them desperately under-educated when – if – they go home. Alas, it is a worldwide statistic that, of displaced refugees, around 30 per cent never return home.
One Unicef official in Beirut spoke movingly to me of how Syrian families had simply spent all their savings.
“When they arrived, they took rented rooms. Then as the money began to get lower, they packed into one room, then they shared the one room with other families – and then went to live in tents. Some had been displaced three times in their own country before coming here.”
There are now 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon – one in every three people in Lebanon is now a Syrian – and at least 15,000 refugee children have been born here. So difficult is the registration that by the end of this year, there could be 30,000 unregistered Syrian child refugees in Lebanon. Syrian school enrolment in Lebanon is below that of sub-Saharan Africa. And 80 per cent of Syrian refugees here live in areas inhabited by 68 per cent of the poorest Lebanese.
Frank Hagemann, the deputy regional director of the ILO, said that the children need “on the job training and protection in addition to schools”, because the reconstruction of Syria will need skills. “We try to put more schools in place to reduce the size of this lost generation. Some children are working 12 to 14 hours a day. Working hours must come down. Let’s at least save the children’s health.” In other words, if child labour cannot be stopped, then the working hours should be reduced and include vocational training.