With poverty rates on the rise, eradicating child labour in Lebanon is proving ever more complicated

Fourteen-year-old Lebanese boy, Khodor Masri, has been working in a coal bunker since he was 12 years old. (Ethel Bonet )

On roaming through the winding alleyways of Tripoli’s old city and its maze-like souk, it is not unusual to see children pushing wheelbarrows with boxes of fruit or vegetables, running from one place to another with plastic bags carrying local shopper’s purchases, cleaning the shelves of a grocer’s shop or preparing the dough for manousheh, Lebanon’s traditional breakfast staple. It should not be such a common sight, but child labour is an uncomfortable reality in Lebanon, and is the result of failed child protection policies, despite the many millions received in international aid and the work of UN agencies such as WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF.

The port city of Tripoli is Lebanon’s second most densely populated urban area, with 250,000 inhabitants and, despite being home to two of the country’s richest families – the Mikati and Karami families, from which several prime ministers and senior politicians hail – it is also the poorest, not only in the country, but in the whole of the Mediterranean, according to World Bank figures. Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian refugees make or, rather, scrape a living, from the informal economy, selling wares on the street, with no working hours or wages.

The problem of poverty and, by extension, child labour, has worsened over the last two years, driven by the spiralling economic crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the political instability, according to the experts interviewed for this report. Half of Lebanon now lives below the poverty line. In Tripoli, the percentage is higher still: “Over 60 per cent of the population […] and the unemployment rate has reached 80 per cent,” Lebanese economist Khaldoun Sharif tells Equal Times. In deprived neighbourhoods such as Bab al-Tabaneh, “78 per cent of its residents live in extreme poverty,” he adds.

The poverty and lack of opportunity lead many youngsters and their families to the conclusion that studying will not feed them, that it will not bring them a better future. Many children drop out of school at age 12 to start working. It’s a vicious cycle. Khodor Masri is lost in thought, breaking up pieces of coal with a metal tool, sat squatting on the floor of a coal bunker covered in plastic sheeting. He is now 14 years old but started working at the age of 12 after moving with his family to Bab al-Tabaneh from the border town of Akkar. His father had lost his job; he had heart problems and could not cope with too much physical exertion. The rents were higher in Akkar, so they decided to move to Bab al-Tabaneh, where an uncle of his lives.

Khodor Masri and one of his older brothers work in the coal trade. Their uncle too, sometimes, when he has time. He earns 10,000 Lebanese pounds a day, no matter how many hours he works, which, at the current rate of exchange, with the depreciation of the local currency, works out at around €1 a day.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Masri tried to combine his work with online classes, but because the internet connection was very weak and expensive, and he felt he was not learning anything, he decided to forget about schooling. A few metres past the coal bunker is a mechanic’s workshop. Marwan, aged 13, and two other boys, who may be the same age as him but refuse to talk to the journalist, work there. Marwan seems very outgoing. He earns 35,000 Lebanese pounds a week and his job consists of screwing on hubcaps, checking tyre pressure and changing the pads on the wax polishing machine. Marwan is the middle child of nine siblings. The four eldest, two girls and two boys, also work. His two older brothers are scrap pickers and recyclers. They earn 5,500 Lebanese pounds for a kilo of scrap metal. Between Marwan and his two older brothers, they earn just enough to cover the rent, gas, water and electricity. Their father works as a painter, but with the economic crisis and the pandemic, he finds ever fewer walls to whitewash.

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Aside from the economic and health crises – and, more recently, the Beirut port explosion – and their impact on the authorities’ capacity to act, the residents of Tripoli, a largely conservative Sunni city, are generally mistrustful of the central government, controlled by the interests and ambitions of the Shia militia-party Hezbollah. The fact that Lebanon ranks so low on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, 149th place out of 179 in 2020, does not help either.

The central government’s policy of marginalising Tripoli is one of the reasons behind the high rate of children dropping out of school to go to work. The city, which has 90 public schools and 24 private primary schools with a total of 69,000 students, has the highest dropout rate in the country, at 16 per cent, and the highest illiteracy rate, at 13 per cent, among over-11s, according to local NGOs.

Greater hardship and uncertainty for refugee children

Lebanon and Syria are physically divided by a border, but their history is intertwined. Initially, when thousands of Syrians entered Lebanon, fleeing the war, they were received not as refugees but as guests. But after a decade, and after welcoming over 914,000 refugees (more than half of them children), attitudes have changed and their socio-economic conditions have deteriorated. Hussein Dahar and his cousin Abdu Daud are the same age, 10 years old, the same age as the Syrian war. The two Syrian children were born in Lebanon but have neither been registered by the local authorities nor by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so they make do as best they can, living without papers. Dahar has been the head of the family since his father went back to Syria when the voluntary returns began in 2018. Dahar cannot read or write but he does know how to count. He can count the hours they work, more than ten, at times, and the kilos of rubbish they collect, so they can’t be cheated when it comes to their pay.

International organisations and local NGOs, although they have not been able to update their figures in recent years, agree that child labour has skyrocketed since the second half of 2019, as a result of the economic crisis, with even more families falling into poverty. The proportion is alarming in the case of Syrian refugees: 88 per cent are living below the poverty line, that is, on less than US$3 a day, compared to 55 per cent in 2018, according to the most recent UNHCR statistics.

For decades, Lebanon was supplied by Syrian day labourers during harvest time or for the collection of seasonal grains and fruits. But in the last 10 years, Syrian seasonal workers have become refugees, and have brought their families with them. Now “75 per cent of Syrian refugee children working in the Bekaa Valley do so in agriculture,” according to a report by the International Labour Affairs Bureau (ILAB). One reason for this is that there are legal restrictions on access to work for adult Syrian refugees, and many of them are in an irregular situation in Lebanon. To work legally, they need to be registered with the UNHCR or have a local sponsor, and pay for a work permit. “The irregular situation of many adult refugees makes children more vulnerable to child labour,” because children are not asked for papers, Jackeline Atwi, coordinator of UNICEF’s Child Protection Programme, tells Equal Times.

In coordination with local NGOs, UNICEF has introduced informal education in the temporary Syrian refugee settlements in the Bekaa Valley and other parts of the country, to combat school absenteeism and illiteracy among working refugee children.

According to the UNICEF coordinator, the Lebanese authorities have been taking steps to try to eradicate child labour in recent years, but more needs to be done. In 2019, the government adopted an open policy, admitting all refugee children to school, regardless of whether or not they have the documents required for school enrolment. As part of the measure, the Education Ministry opened 240 public primary schools with afternoon shifts so that Syrian refugees could attend classes. The UNICEF coordinator points out that Lebanese children, in general, and Syrian refugee children, in particular, are still nonetheless confronted with barriers to education, ranging from the cost of transport and school materials to discrimination and bullying.

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To make such strategies work, Atwi feels the problem of child labour needs to be looked at in a “realistic” way. Although the goal is to eradicate it, Atwi says that “just opening public schools so that more children can enrol doesn’t work. You also have to offer these families an alternative. In other words, if children have no choice but to work, they should also be able to dedicate a few hours to learning how to read, write and do maths,” which will open up more opportunities for them in the future.

Another initiative, launched by the Ministry of Labour, has been to amend the labour legislation, to raise the minimum working age to 15. The minimum age is one of the legal obstacles hindering humanitarian organisations working to eradicate child labour. As Atwi explains, “under Lebanese law, the minimum working age is 14 and this means that many children do not finish their basic general education,” which ends, by law, at the age of 15.

“We are doing what we can to raise awareness about this issue among refugees and we are giving our full support to the Lebanese government,” she says, whilst acknowledging that they are not reaching all the refugee children they want to. But they have in the case of Rana, a young Syrian refugee, who works as a seasonal labourer but has not given up on learning.

She dreams of a bright future, of becoming a teacher or a paediatrician, so she tries her best not to miss the informal classes, which are held in an open-air compound in the temporary settlement where she lives with her family in Zahle, in the Bekaa Valley. “Children should play and learn, not work,” says the young girl.

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