Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Syria: Poverty driving child labour among Iraqi refugees

Aseel (left) and her mother working at home

Aseel Ali*, aged 16, and her mother - both refugees from Iraq - earn just enough (US$174 per month between them) in a Damascus handicraft workshop to pay their rent and buy food.

“I have to help my mother as our savings ran out,” Aseel told IRIN. “We start early in the morning and finish at 4pm, and also take work home,” she said.

Aseel’s family fled to Egypt in 2006. In 2007 her father went back to Iraq for a short visit but has since gone missing.

After their savings dried up, the family returned to Iraq in January 2009 on one of the free government-organized flights designed to stimulate returns, but the family received fresh death threats and Aseel’s 12-year-old brother was kidnapped and tortured. Once he was released, his mother decided they should flee again - this time to Syria.

Aseel has not been to school since she left Iraq in 2006. In Egypt, private schools were beyond the family’s means and when they arrived in Syria, where Iraqi refugees have free access to education in public schools, she could not attend school as she needed to earn money for the family to survive.

According to a November 2007 survey by the IPSOS market research agency, 37 percent of Iraqi refugees interviewed said their main source of income was their savings; 24 percent relied on remittances; and 24 percent on wages; 33 percent expected their money to last less than three months; 53 percent did not know how long their money would last.

Lack of data on child labour

There are no up-to-date statistics on child labour among the refugee population, but officials and the refugees themselves think the number is on the rise. Not allowed to work legally, Iraqis receive very low wages and find it difficult to make ends meet, officials say.

A young Iraqi woman IRIN met at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Douma registration centre who preferred anonymity said many Iraqi children where she was living were not going to school. “They work in different jobs to support their helpless families,” she said.

The IPSOS survey estimated that about 10 percent of school-age Iraqi children in Syria are working.

The Syrian government has also recognized that child labour is becoming a widespread phenomenon among Iraqi refugees, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in its child protection strategy 2008-2009, quoting a paper presented by the Syrian government to an international conference on Iraqi refugees in Geneva in 2007.

School dropouts

"Families have spent their savings and are becoming increasingly destitute. There are indications that more children are dropping out of school and entering the labour market to help support their families. Early marriages for girls are also on the rise as a result of economic hardship," UNHCR public information officer Farah Dakhlallah told IRIN.

"According to government statistics, there were fewer Iraqi children registered in the 2008-2009 school year than in the previous year. We believe this is primarily linked to economic duress, as well as resettlement and returns," Dakhlallah said.

The Ministry of Education said there were 32,425 Iraqi students officially enrolled in the 2008-09 school year compared to 49,132 in 2007-08.

New study

In collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the International Labour Organization (ILO), UNICEF has launched a national study on the worst forms of child labour in Syria, UNICEF child protection specialist Theodora Tsovili told IRIN. “The study will take three months and will include Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi children,” she said.

“Only with this study will we get updated information about this phenomenon. We have estimates that school dropouts are linked to child labour, but we don’t have proof. We need this study to back up any future response,” she said.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

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