We need a change of approach to address the exploitation of Syrian refugee children

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A Syrian child in a refugee camp in Jordan. [MaxililianV/Flickr]

The war in Syria is raging on with no end in sight to the suffering or human rights violations it brings. We need to rethink how we protect the children displaced by this conflict. This opinion is published courtesy of EURACTIV’s partner ID4D.

A lawyer by training, Pierre Salignon joined Agence Française de Développement’s Health and Social Protection Division as project manager in early October 2013. He is responsible for supervising projects related to the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

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.

Working to survive

According to the United Nations, the war in Syria has caused “the largest refugee crisis since World War Two”, with four million people now forced to flee Syria. 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 traumatised, a “lost generation” according to UNICEF. To support themselves or their families, at a very early age, many refugee children work in the neighbouring 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 streets, factories and camps where they now reside, leaves no doubt as to the massive scale of the violations of children’s rights (labour 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, no respite.

Investigators from Fondation Terre des Hommes (TDH) 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 labour was already a reality in their country of origin, 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 families does not give them more protection and does not prevent them from being exposed to labour and other forms of exploitation.

Child exploitation reaching a critical level in all the countries visited

Firstly, in Syria, over five 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 people, including many children, who are forced to work in “increasingly dangerous and abusive conditions which have a physical, mental or social impact”, according to 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 that are blockaded and bombed. We read that “many children are severely traumatised and in need of immediate help”.

In Syria’s neighbouring 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” the report states. 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 a lack of financing, an increasing number of children joined the exploited mass. 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. Not to mention the recurrent suspicions of rape and prostitution in refugee camps that 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 labour in this transit area spread prior to 2016 (“most people intended to quickly continue their journey” TDH noted), in recent months, following the tightening of controls at the external borders of the Schengen Area, the first cases of labour have been reported to TDH members. They are “especially from Greece”, where refugees are stranded without any proper assistance in detention centres, 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 labour and exploitation have recently been identified. If further proof were needed, this highlights the urgent need to realise 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.

The need for a new approach to protect children

TDH points out some of the factors that expose refugee children to risks of exploitation at a very early age. They are many, well-known and observed in most situations of displacement.

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 child exploitation. This means that development actors need to change approach and improve their practices. Instead of establishing specific programmes to fight child labour, TDH in particular notes that “interventions to protect children from exploitation should be generally integrated into all child protection programmes.”

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, actually further expose refugees, especially children, to the predation of smugglers and those who seek to exploit a poor, cheap and docile labour force in an extremely vulnerable situation. Traffickers of human beings have no mercy for the weakest in the economy of poverty that they exploit. This is the case in the countries bordering Syria and at the gates of Europe, but closer to home 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 consider them as “a danger”, “illegal migrants”, or people just looking for a job, regardless of whether they are minors or orphans fleeing war.

Consequently, TDH is 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 labour exploitation of the youngest, emphasising 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 Europe’s inhumane public policies. Border closures, stigmatisation of refugees, keeping exhausted families in overcrowded and unsanitary detention centres, sending refugees, including children, back to Turkey, failing to protect the most vulnerable, 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 that protects refugees, particularly children, and respects their human rights , will reduce their suffering and prevent them from plunging into poverty, or tomorrow into radicalisation and violence out of frustration. To put it simply, the current, repressive European policy makes Syrian refugee children more vulnerable and exposes them to further risks of exploitation. We need to develop an approach focused on the interests and needs of children. Their protection cannot be sacrificed to control migration flows in the name if the fight against terrorism.

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