Nick Grono writes: I met six-year-old Mustafa in the safe zone of one of the many tented settlements for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. These areas offer schooling, including art and music classes, for Syrian children. They provide a respite from the brutal realities of life as a refugee, which can involve back-breaking labour for children as young as six, and marriage for girls at the age of 13.
Mustafa told us that, after leaving class at midday, he would spend the afternoon carting bricks to earn a pittance for his family. One of his classmates, a seven-year-old girl, said she picks potatoes every afternoon – tough, physical work that involves constant bending while carrying a heavy load.
Officially, Lebanon is home to almost 1.2 million refugees, but unofficial estimates put it at more than 1.5 million. Given that its prewar population was just over 4 million, this is an overwhelming burden, one with which any government would struggle to cope.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Most have little or no money, yet they have to pay landlords for the patches of land on which they erect their tents, and to supplement the meagre aid handouts they may be fortunate enough to receive. But the Lebanese government – keen to stop Syrians settling permanently in Lebanon – is preventing refugees from working or even residing legally in the country. It is refusing to issue work permits except in exceptional circumstances. And it is now very difficult for Syrians to obtain residency permits – a key obstacle being a $200 (£140) annual fee per adult refugee – meaning most are breaking the law simply by staying in the country (pdf).
This creates conditions ripe for abusive employers to exploit vulnerable refugees. Because they don’t have the necessary papers, refugees live in fear of coming into contact with the authorities, particularly at the many checkpoints throughout the country. As children are less likely to be stopped at checkpoints, they are forced to work in the fields or in nearby towns. Unscrupulous employers prefer them because they are more compliant, and more unwilling to complain about physical abuse. For this laborious and often hazardous work, they are paid a few dollars at most, a portion of which is often retained by the Syrian settlement leader. [Continue reading…]