IDLIB: Muhammed al-Hussein, a resident of southern opposition-controlled Idlib (northern Syria), works seven days a week for the local mechanic. Day after day, he toils for hours without respite, leaned over a car engine with oil caked on his face and clothing.
However, there is a stark difference between Muhammed and the rest of the shop’s employees: he is ten years old.
“A year ago, my father sent me to the car repair shop to learn the profession and help him with the household income,” al-Hussein tells the Syrian Voice.
Muhammed’s family came to Idlib province after fleeing regime and Russian bombing on the northern Hama countryside.
The financial strain of displacement within the greater context of Syria’s faltering economy has pushed families like Muhammed’s to send their children to work.
“I work every day for nine hours straight and get paid SP1,000 weekly [$2],” al-Hussein explains.
Muhammed’s situation is not out of the ordinary. For many families, children are an integral contributor to household earnings due to the worsening economic conditions and the limitations of humanitarian aid.
Within “liberated” opposition territories, worsening economic conditions and lack of oversight are resulting in high rates of child labor.
For displaced children in rebel-held areas, the physical and psychological hazards of child labor are compounding the mental effect of the war.
“The long war was enough to create a generation of psychologically worn children,” Samir a-Shemali, a psychological counselor at a children’s education center, tells the Syrian Voice. “Their lot has worsened with the spread of the child labor phenomenon.”
‘I hate the work, but keep going because of our situation’
Within opposition-controlled regions, children as young as seven years old have entered the work force as street hawkers and mechanics, among other jobs.
Faced with physical and psychological trauma on a daily basis, “children are losing the spirit of ‘childhood’ in their lives,” warns a-Shemali.
In blacksmith and carpentry workshops, children must work with dangerous machinery, leaving them exposed to serious injury. Respiratory complications are another hazard, particularly for children who deal with fuels or chemicals at work.
Psychologically, verbal and physical abuse by establishment owners can have a crippling effect on a child’s mental state and development.
“The bullying of children by their employers instills fear, insecurity, a lack of self-confidence, all on top of the effects of the war’s bombing and destruction,” says a-Shemali.
“The shop owner is cruel,” Muhammed al-Hussein, the child mechanic, tells a Syrian Voice correspondent. “I hate the work, but keep going because of our situation.”
The child labor boom in opposition territories
The Syrian Arab Republic’s child labor laws have been in compliance with the standards set by the International Labor Organization since 2003, according to a Terre Des Hommes 2016 report.
Child labor had been an issue within Syria prior to the beginning of the revolution in 2011 despite a law (No. 24/2000) which set the minimum age for employment at 15.
Within opposition territories, these legal regulations are moot in the absence of any regulatory bodies and considering the dire economic position of many displaced families.
The Syrian conflict has pushed 80 percent of civilians beneath the poverty line compared with 23 percent before 2011, according to a 2015 report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia.
These poverty rates mean that children’s salaries can be pivotal for the survival of a family, even though wages for underage workers are scant.
This willingness of displaced children to work for low pay has fueled the child labor boom in opposition territories.
“Most of the children that apply for work are displaced,” Abu Selmo, the owner of a repair shop in Hama, tells Syrian Voice correspondents.
“Three of them work for me and the truth of the matter is that their [combined] salary is half of one adult’s wages. That’s why owners will hire these children,” he explains.
In some cases, children have become the sole breadwinners for their families after being orphaned by the conflict.
“Four underage children work for me, three of them orphans whose parents were killed in the war,” Hussein al-Khateeb, a carpenter in southern Idlib province, tells the Syrian Voice.
“It puts a large responsibility on them to support their families and provide for their daily needs.”
Lack of education, lack of access
The prevalence of child labor in opposition territories is a danger to the psychological well-being of Syria’s youth who are already victims to the violence of the conflict, says counselor Samir a-Shemali.
Weighing in on proposed solutions, he stresses that “education is the best way to build a child’s character again and schools are needed to provide that.”
The school year began last week in Syria; however, the country’s educational system is still in a state of disrepair.
A September 2015 UNICEF report estimated that over 5000 schools in Syria are no longer operational after having been destroyed during the conflict, converted to displacement camps, or seized for military purposes.
“I’m cut off from my school and haven’t finished the third grade,” Muhammed al-Hussein, tells a Syrian Voice correspondent, adding that he is unable to read and write.
When schools are accessible and safe, a family’s financial need can still outweigh the importance of education.
In 2015, a joint report by UNICEF and Save the Children identified child labor as the predominant reason for the withdrawal of children from schools in many parts of Syria, including Hama, rural Damascus, Idlib, and Aleppo.
Organizations such as Terre Des Hommes and No Lost Generation have implemented projects to promote education and protect children from being forced into labor.
However, their access to Syria is limited, specifically with regard to opposition territories.
To date, Terre Des Hommes’ only project within Syria took place in Jaramana, a town in the regime-controlled Damascus countryside.
No Lost Generation, an EU and UNICEF supported initiative focusing on the plight of Syria’s youth, has continually cited access as a major constraint to implementing children’s protection projects.
Despite partnerships with local organizations and “remote” projects, campaigns to provide child protection and psychosocial support “in these conditions is limited, inconsistent, and falls far short of need,” according a 2016 update.
Within these hard-to-reach pockets of opposition-controlled Syria, child labor continues to grow unfettered.
For his part, Samir a-Shemali continues the call for child protection and education initiatives in opposition territories in the hopes that Syrian children, as he puts it, “can succeed and recover from those difficult beginnings.”
Translated by Tariq Adely