BEIRUT, Aug 7 2013 (IPS) - With Lebanon fraying at the seams under pressure from the neighbouring Syria conflict and the economy stuttering amid a political vacuum, more and more children are being pushed into labour.
There are no concrete statistics, but the ministry of labour has raised its 2006 estimate of 100,000 child workers in the country to 180,000.
The real figure is “significantly higher” due to the extraordinary circumstances of the past two years, head of the ministry’s child labour unit Nazha Shallita told IPS. Lebanon has a population of 4.2 million.
“As Lebanon struggles to deal with the huge influx of Syrian refugees, along with a general decline in the economic and security situation in the country, not to mention the absence of a government, we are witnessing more and more children being forced into work,” Hayat Osseiran, a Lebanon-based consultant for the International Labour Organisation and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, told IPS.
On any given night in central Beirut young children can be seen wandering among the city’s revellers selling roses or gardenia necklaces until the early hours. While the swelling numbers of street children hawking everything from flowers to tissues are perhaps the most visible and commonly encountered form of child labour, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
“This work is hard and I don’t like it but I have to do it for the family,” said 11-year-old Jihad as he carried a bunch of cheap plastic roses to tout outside a popular Beirut bar. “If my mum and my dad and my brother could make it here I would be able to go back to school but they are stuck in Aleppo and can’t come to join me.”
The legions of children working Lebanon’s streets have grown considerably with the arrival over the past couple of years of tens of thousands of impoverished and destitute Syrian families uprooted by the brutal civil war back home. However, the problem was around before the Syria crisis and often has a more sinister undertone than impoverished children hustling on the streets to support hard up families.
“Many of these kids are not just flower sellers, they are put to work selling many things and they are organised by criminal gangs,” lawyer and child rights activist Khaled Merheb told IPS. “There is a bus that brings them and then at the end of the night it comes and collects them.”
The Internal Security Forces (ISF) is responsible for policing the exploitation of street children but concede there is little they can do without proper referral mechanisms to keep the children off the streets.
There is one centre in the country for street children picked up by the ISF but it offers virtually no rehabilitation services, is chronically under-funded and is unable to keep children in its custody if a relative asks for their release – even if it is believed the family member is exploiting the child.
The ISF could offer no statistics on the number of adults charged with exploiting street children, while also acknowledging that criminal gangs mastermind much of this work. Children complain frequently of mistreatment by the ISF, said Merheb. And virtually all cases against adults who put children to work “don’t go to court.”
Beyond those children hawking on the street, tens of thousands of youngsters are getting drawn away from education into work – and work is not just a few shifts at the corner store for pocket money, or a summer job to bolster the CV.
Child labour often exposes children to physical, sexual or psychological abuse, deprives them of the right to education, and endangers their health, safety and morals. Children are working on factory floors, in brothels, machinery workshops, tobacco fields and rubbish dumps.
Lebanon is signatory to a number of international treaties on child labour and has taken some steps in changing its national laws and policies to bring itself in line with its obligations. Foremost among these was the raising of the minimum age in 1996 for working children from nine to 14 years, and 15 years in industrial projects and for activities which are physically demanding or detrimental to health.
The laws exist but there is virtually no monitoring on the ground. The ministry of labour has a team of about 70 inspectors across the country. However, a recent pilot project by the Dutch NGO War Child found that of the 19 inspectors it worked with, none were aware that it was their responsibility to investigate child labour, nor were they even aware of the child labour unit within the ministry.
On a street corner in one of Beirut’s impoverished slums a group of youngsters between the ages of 12 and 15 have all dropped out of school. They hold jobs ranging from packing rat poison to cleaning aluminium workshops. They typically work six days a week for eight to 12 hours a day for up to only 60 dollars a week.
“I thought that work would be better for me than school but I made a mistake. School is better than work. I really regret so much that I left school but it is too late now,” said Haydar, one of the youngsters in the group.
High dropout rates, especially in neglected areas, are a major problem. A law passed in 1998 set down free and compulsory education until the age of 12, but has never been put into effect.
“Education is neither free nor compulsory in many communities,” Lala Arabia, executive manager and protection coordinator for the Insaan Organisation that works with street children, told IPS. “Oftentimes families are simply told we don’t have enough places. How can that be compulsory? This is especially true for non-Lebanese.”
Many of the poverty stricken areas of Lebanon have long endured neglect from a weak and fractured state. Now with the political and security situation deteriorating amid a growing refugee crisis, more and more of children are slipping through the cracks.