American University of Beirut

FHS researchers reveal shocking facts on child labor among Syrian refugees working in agriculture in the Bekaa Valley

With the aim of highlighting the vulnerability and critical situation that children are experiencing in Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, the Environmental Health Department at the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) published a research study, one of the largest studies to be carried out on child labor globally, led by Dr. Rima Habib, entitled "Survey on Child Labour in Agriculture in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon: The Case of Syrian Refugees." 

A launching event of the report was held on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in the auditorium of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) of the American University of Beirut. The event was convened in the presence of the Minister of Labor in Lebanon Camille AbouSleiman and senior representatives from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Discussing the outputs of the study, Dr. Habib revealed shocking facts that threaten the health and quality of life of children living in refugee camps in the Bekaa, as well as their future. Dr. Habib confirmed that the economic situation remains the driving reason for child labor, with families living with an average monthly income-expenditure gap of 69$ per capita, as they seek to ensure their most basic needs, such as food and healthcare.

Regarding children themselves, the study shows that around 70% of children between 4 and 18 years old were working, with an average age of 12.9 years, and that 75% of them were employed in the agricultural sector.

These children are prone to the hazardous exposures encountered in agricultural work," stated Dr. Habib, adding that, according to the study, “30% of the working children in the study have experienced a workplace injury and nearly 34% of the children reported using a sharp or heavy object at work."

The study also revealed that a considerable proportion of boys and girls have been threatened and hit at work, while more than 38% said that they were not paid on time.

Only 18% of the working children were enrolled in school in 2017, with 50% stating that they were not able to go to school due to work commitments," added Dr. Habib.

As for the working conditions themselves and the injuries and treatment, up to 82% of the working children reported working under the sun for an average of six hours per day. While 30% said that they worked in the cold, and 11% said that they worked in the rain. At the same time, when asked about the cost of treatment of injury when it occurs at work, 86% of the children reported that it was covered by their parents, or their relatives, or the children themselves, while 14% only said that it was covered by their employers.

“Despite this bleak situation, the children's optimism was not affected and 91% still believed that they will have a better future," said Dr. Habib, concluding with key suggestions. Dr. Habib called for stakeholders to hold a roundtable to discuss policies impacting child labor, while stressing the need to find ways to start eliminating child labor through simultaneous measures, and particularly the promotion of universal education, and the creation of a safe working environment for children of legal age for work to avoid occupational injuries.

Minister Camille AbouSleiman stated that although “the policy of the Lebanese government is to arrange for the safe return of the refugees or the displaced as soon as possible, there is absolutely no excuse to have children not in schools."  At the ministry level, Minister AbouSleiman confirmed that he will share the findings of this study with the Minister of Health as well as the Minister of Social Affairs, “in order to try to work together to do something actionable and practical." 

The minister also highlighted the government's efforts to regulate the foreign workers market in Lebanon, hoping that it would also lead to tangible results in contributing to the eradication of child labor, particularly in agriculture.

Also speaking at this occasion, AUB President Fadlo Khuri underlined the AUB vision “to create a more equitable world, serving as a creator of opportunities and an advocate for those less fortunate. Our faculty, staff, and students embrace this civic responsibility, which is particularly evident in our Faculty of Health Sciences."

“AUB was able to raise eight million dollars in the United States with the aim to design projects that are dedicated to out-of-school children and to ensuring that they enjoy a life that is free from fear and free from want," stated Dr. Khuri.

The AUB president highlighted the importance of this study in “informing policy and practice and providing a basis for intelligent government policy and interventions that are implementable and sustainable."

Finally, “AUB and FHS are committed to improving the lives of all working children living on Lebanese soil. Working together, with the Lebanese government, international organizations, NGOs and the civil society, we can reclaim their childhood and ensure that they do not become a lost generation," concluded the AUB president.

UNICEF Deputy Representative in Lebanon Violet Speek-Warnery stated that "child labor deprives children of their right to go to school, exposes them to violence, and reinforces inter-generational cycles of poverty. Yet, this violation of human rights is not inevitable." The UNICEF official considered that “this survey comes to complement other studies implemented in this field, aiming at providing government and civil society with information and data knowledge to enable us to better respond and guide our programming for addressing children working in agriculture in Lebanon."

“In 2016, UNICEF found that 6% of Lebanese children, compared to 6.7% of Syrian children, and around 5% of Palestinian and Palestinian refugees from Syria were engaged in child labor. This translates to about 100,000 children," noted Warnery. “Although we do not have a clear census of the sectors employing children, we know that many of them work in agriculture especially in Akkar, Hermel and Balbeck - areas that are mostly reliant on agricultural activities."

Ms. Warnery praised the cooperation and underlined the knowledge sharing among different stakeholders to improve the lives of children, and eventually eradicate child labor.

Speaking on behalf of ILO, Frida Khan highlighted the two core conventions on Child Labor (Convention 138 on minimum age and convention 182 on worst forms of child Labor), stressing the significance of realizing that “these conventions are not something idealistic, they are strongly rooted in ground reality. It's because of that these conventions recognize that in some cases it is fine for children to work, that there are certain conditions and certain types of work which could be considered suitable for children to do. But generally speaking agriculture is not amongst them." 

Khan added that as per the Lebanese Labour Law, “work in agriculture is recognized as being hazardous for children which means it is likely to impact their ability to go to school and is a danger to their health and life which is confirmed by this research." 

“Child labor is a complex issue and it can't be solved through a simple and single solution," stated Khan. “But keeping children in work reinforces the cycle of  poverty and lack of opportunity and unless we break the cycle there is a risk of raising a lost generation who could be productive and active citizens in the future but instead grow up to be uneducated malnourished and neglected," she concluded.

Representing FAO in this event, Dr. Maurice Saade praised this study since “it is the first of its kind and was based on extensive field work and a comprehensive survey covering more than 12,700 displaced Syrians living in informal tented settlements in the Bekaa." Realizing that the vast majority of child labor worldwide is found in the agriculture sector, and as FAO is working towards the elimination of child labor, we are working together with partners on making agriculture livelihoods safer, more productive and resilient," stated Dr. Saade.

“This study brings in valuable information and guidance on the hardships faced by children at work in agriculture in Bekaa Valley... It gives us a broader picture on the food insecurity, deep multi-dimensional poverty pushing children out of school into work, and on the risks and hazardous working conditions they face," he concluded.

The prolonged conflict in Syria has resulted in the displacement of millions of Syrians to neighboring countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Lebanon has disproportionately felt the repercussions of this crisis and currently has the highest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world. With 341,234 individuals, the Bekaa region in eastern Lebanon has the highest concentration of Syrian refugees in the country. Many of these refugees are living in informal tented settlements. They are among the most vulnerable populations in the country. They experience poverty characterized by a lack of basic necessities and comforts, as well as hazardous living conditions. Financial strain and precarity are primary motivators pushing children in refugee families into work and out of school. The challenging conditions producing child labor among the displaced Syrian population require coordinated efforts by various stakeholders to identify adequate solutions. This objective may be difficult to attain but not impossible. ​

For the full report, please click HERE

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