ALEPPO, Syria — Child labor has become a catastrophic problem plaguing many Syrian cities and towns. Instead of enrolling in school, children are working for several reasons, mainly because the family provider was killed in the war or arrested by the regime or the Islamic State (IS). Other reasons include extreme poverty, the high cost of living and soaring levels of unemployment as a result of the country's 7-year-old civil war. Despite much talk of cease-fires and "safe zones," the war is still raging in many regions.
In areas of the Aleppo countryside liberated during Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017), child labor has been on the rise. Children have dropped out of school and entered the job market, many in difficult and dangerous jobs unsuitable for children.
Child labor in the Euphrates Shield areas soared after Turkey declared the end of that military operation against IS. As stability was gradually restored, more shops opened their doors. Professions picked up after having been defunct during IS rule. The area attracted thousands of displaced people from different Syrian regions.
During a recent visit to the area, Al-Monitor noticed that most of the working children seem to be those who are displaced and living under the poverty line in refugee camps. Others who are originally from the area have returned, and some have lost one of their parents.
Al-Monitor visited the main cities in the Euphrates Shield area now under control of the Free Syrian Army: al-Bab, Marea, Azaz and Jarablus. Children from 7 to 17 years of age work for pay in all shops and professions, mainly blacksmithing, carpentry, car and motorcycle maintenance, tailoring and retail, in hardware stores, grocery stores, fast-food shops and cigarette kiosks. Children typically earn a monthly wage of $40-$50 and work at least 12 hours a day.
“Six children under 15 work with me," Chadi Hafez, who owns a carpentry workshop in Azaz, told Al-Monitor. Three of the children lost their fathers in the war. "They had to take on huge responsibilities to provide for their families the basic daily needs and to pay the rent. Each child earns $50 per month, and children come to me daily asking for work. Most of them are displaced or harmed by the war.”
Al-Monitor observed that displaced children whose families are poor and lost everything when they fled their homes constitute a large segment of the working children in the area. Being constantly on the move and bearing the high cost of new living arrangements left them with no savings. Business owners employ the displaced children, who accept low wages and long hours because they are desperate.
Wassim Salam, 14, started fixing motorbikes in al-Bab after his father was killed in February in a Russian air raid on Deir Hafer in eastern Aleppo province. He and his four sisters moved 25 miles northwest to al-Bab for safety.
"I am the eldest and the sole provider," he told Al-Monitor. "I had to find a job that covers the living costs.”
Salam added, “I leave the house daily and head to work at 8 in the morning, except for Fridays [which are holy days]. I help the boss fix motorbikes, and I stay at work till 8 at night. I earn 30,000 Syrian pounds [$58] per month. The pay is low, but it is better than waiting for people to take pity on me and my family.”
Mahmoud Saleh, 13, from Jarablus, told Al-Monitor, “IS killed my father at the end of 2014 and left me with three siblings and my mother. I had to work with my uncle in a vegetable store in the [Jarablus] market. I left school after fifth grade. I was not happy to drop out of school and go to work, but I have no other choice.”
Psychologist Enas Youssef said most children who work face physical violence and psychological abuse that have a lasting negative impact on their lives. The work environment also stresses them, makes them susceptible to diseases and puts them in danger of wounds or physical injuries because they use sharp tools and their bodies are weak.
Youssef told Al-Monitor, “Working children suffer several psychological issues that stay with them and worsen. For instance, the child withdraws from people and becomes introverted. He also feels responsibility prematurely at a time when he really needs to play and be carefree like his peers. Children also show signs of depression. Dropping out of school prevents them from learning necessary skills like reading and writing. Some professions also leave chronic physical harm on children like damaged discs and breathing problems if chemicals are used on the job.”
There are no laws banning child labor in the region. There are no solutions, either, to curb the phenomenon. Civil initiatives to reduce child labor are also missing despite the gravity of the problem, which gives rise to ignorance and a physically, psychologically and socially damaged generation that will not be easily healed.