The war in Syria is continuing, with its consequent suffering and violations of human rights, and no prospect of a rapid resolution. A study by Fondation Terre des Hommes (TDH) published in June 2016 gives chilling insight into the survival conditions of Syrian refugee children, and the different forms of exploitation they are subject to. It draws attention to another tragic effect of the war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has caused. Finally, it calls for the need to change approach in order to increase the protection of refugee children.

© UNHCR / D. Kashavelov
© UNHCR / D. Kashavelov

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Work to survive

According to the United Nations, the war in Syria has caused “the largest refugee crisis since World War II”, with 4 million people now forced to flee Syria. In addition, as with every conflict waged against civilians, children are the first victims. They account for half the people driven from their homes, killed, injured, disabled or traumatized… a “lost generation” according to UNICEF. To support themselves or their families, at a very early age, many refugee children work in the neighboring countries where they have sought asylum (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq), or set out on the migration routes towards Europe. The survey conducted on farms, in the street, factories and camps where they now reside, leaves no doubt as to the massive violations of children’s rights which lie on their pathway of flight (labor exploitation at a very early age, sexual violence, prostitution, various forms of predation on mothers and children, etc.). For them, there is no refuge, nor protection, nor respite.

TDH investigators questioned a sample of around a hundred Syrian child and adolescent refugees, aged between 8 and 18. They all testified and stated that they worked in one form or another. While child labor was already a reality in their country of origin, Syria, it has become commonplace in the camps where they are temporarily accommodated, and in the cities and villages where a vast majority of Syrian refugees reside in increasingly precarious conditions, as shown by a study conducted by the World Bank and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the poverty of refugees “The Welfare of Syrian Refugees: Evidence from Jordan and Lebanon”. The fact that some of these children are accompanied by their family does not give them more protection and does not prevent them from being exposed to labor and other forms of exploitation.

Child exploitation reaching a critical level in all the countries visited

Firstly, in Syria, over 5 years since the conflict began, serious violations of human rights and the laws of war are continuing (murders, mutilations, recruitments by armed groups, attacks on schools and hospitals, food deprivation…). There are unprecedented internal displacements. The United Nations estimates that there are 8 million internally displaced persons, including many children, who are forced to work in “increasingly dangerous and abusive conditions which have a physical, mental or social impact” points out TDH. In the opinion of all observers, living conditions have become quite simply appalling in the besieged zones, but also in the rest of the Syrian territory (regardless of who controls it), due to the lack of sufficient aid. Access to humanitarian aid in the country is most of the time blocked by the fighting forces, who use civilians as human shields, in cities which are under blockade and bombed. We read that “many children are severely traumatized and in need of immediate help”.

In Syria’s neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq), refugee children often have the role of breadwinner for their families, despite their young age. “Child labor, including its worst forms, has reached an alarming scale” points out the report. It is a well-known coping mechanism, “after savings have been exhausted, income depleted or aid services reduced”. This is how, from the winter of 2015 onwards, while the United Nations was reducing their rations due to the lack of financing, an increasing number of children joined the mass of exploited children. Many boys and girls are today working long hours on building sites, farms, markets and in the street, in antiquated conditions, often seven days a week and for a pittance. Access to education is not possible for them. This is without mentioning the recurrent suspicions of rape and prostitution in refugee camps, as in Turkey, which have recently been reported by the press.

On the “Balkan Route”, the situation is also far from reassuring. While no evidence has been found that child labor in this transit area spread prior to 2016 (“most people intended to quickly continue their journey” notes TDH), in recent months, following the tightening of controls at the external borders of the Schengen Area, the first cases of labor have, however, been reported to TDH members. They are “especially from Idomeni/Greece”, where refugees are stranded without any proper assistance in detention centers, which are generally closed, before being sent back to Turkey. What is more surprising is that the report indicates that in Germany, one of the main destination countries for Syrian refugees (several hundreds of thousands have been hosted there since the summer of 2015), isolated incidences of labor and exploitation have recently been identified. This highlights, if proof were needed, the urgent need to realize how vulnerable refugee children are in this context of flight and predation, and that there is an urgent need to take action to reduce the risks of exploitation they face.

Need to change approach to protect children

TDH points out some of the factors which expose refugee children to risks of exploitation at a very early age. There are many of them and they are well-known and observed in most situations of displacement, i.e.: family breakdown, the fact that parents do not have access to legal work, that one or several family members are ill and do not have access to the health system, the significant vulnerability of single-parent families and single mothers, the administrative and legal problems which prevent school enrolment and access to education, geographical isolation or not being able to pay for transport to get to school or have access to other support services, social and community stigma, the inadequacy of humanitarian aid, etc.

Given the diversity of these factors, according to TDH, “prevention and protection mechanisms have to follow a multi-dimensional approach”. This is the only effective way to fight against child exploitation. This means that development actors need to change approach and improve their practices. Instead of establishing specific programs to fight against child labor, TDH in particular notes that “interventions to protect children from exploitation should be generally integrated into all the child protection programs. A holistic approach should include all the aspects of child labor, i.e. health, education, child protection, livelihood, cash assistance and other direct assistance but also include advocacy, awareness-raising and social integration”.

Finally, the TDH report can be understood as a thinly veiled criticism of European policies which, by seeking to contain the influx of refugees towards its borders, do actually further expose refugees, especially children, to the predation of smugglers and those who seek to exploit a poor, cheap and docile labor force, in an extremely vulnerable situation. Traffickers of human beings have no mercy for the weakest in the economy of poverty which they exploit. This is the case in the countries bordering Syria, and at the gates of Europe, but closer to us as well, in the Calais region or near the Gare du Nord station in Paris.

Instead of ensuring enhanced protection for children, most European Union States (with the notable exception of Germany), continue in practice, and in contradiction with European solidarity values, to often consider them as “a danger”, “illegal migrants”, or people only looking for a job… regardless of whether they are minors and isolated, orphans, fleeing war.

Consequently, TDH is logically asking European States to review their asylum policies in order to support refugee children. The Swiss foundation stresses in particular the major risk of the labor exploitation of the youngest, emphasizing the need to strengthen the work on data collection and field research in order to document and describe this reality, and denounce it if necessary. It is above all a question of changing the current European public policies, some of which have inhumane consequences… border closures, stigmatization of refugees, keeping exhausted families in overcrowded and insanitary detention centers, sending refugees, including children, back to Turkey, lack of protection for the most vulnerable and of protection programs targeting children, etc.

While the conflict in Syria offers no prospects for refugees to return home for a long time to come, the report published by TDH has the merit of reminding us that only a humanist policy for the protection of refugees, particularly children, that respects human rights, will reduce their suffering and prevent them from plunging into poverty, or tomorrow into radicalization and violence out of frustration. To put it simply, the current European policy, which is mainly repressive, makes Syrian refugee children more vulnerable and exposes them to further risks of exploitation. Yet, on the contrary, it is indeed an approach focused on the interests and needs of children which should be developed. Their protection cannot be sacrificed on the altar of the control of migration flows and the fight against terrorism.

The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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