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Syrian kids slave away in Lebanon

Martin Jay, LebanonJune 12, 2016

In Lebanon, short-sighted refugee policies are driving children into slavery and a future of exploitation as prostitutes. In Beirut, Martin Jay sheds light on their plight on World Day Against Child Labor.

Adults and children work as slave laborers on the fields of the Bekaa Valley
Image: DW/M. Jay

"I should be in school. It's my right to be educated, to have an ID, a house, medical care," Mohamed says with stern conviction.

Yet this eight-year-old, who comes from Halab in Syria, has the odds stacked up against him in fulfilling his dream of becoming a human rights lawyer and reproaching the Lebanese landowner for how he treats child workers.

According to a growing number of NGOs, they are now "child slaves," as gone is the endearing euphemism of "forced labor." At least 80 percent of Syrian kids in the Bekaa Valley work in the fields for around four dollars a day, and because the rent on their tents is to be paid to the same landlord, they work in a relationship akin to modern-day slavery.

Five years of the UN and the Lebanese government chaperoning a policy of making refugees here pay for everything - water, electricity, rent and now residency itself - has left a community tarnished and scarred by shame.

And one look into this boy's eyes tells you that he knows it. When asked, "Do you realize you are a child slave?" he barely flinches. But he understands.

"I don't like my work," he finally replies. "I would like to be a lawyer in the future to defend the people and to tell those who are taking children to work that they must take them to aid centers or schools."

Children work as slave laborers on the fields of the Bekaa Valley
Children often end up working on the fields of the Bekaa ValleyImage: DW/Martin Jay

It's only the end of May when DW visits the farm in Akkar, a town on the Syrian-Lebanese border constantly in the news for gunfights, kidnappings and IS brutalities, but the heat is already unbearable.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the metal-tipped canes which both the landowner and his assistant wield are for stirring the soil.

"No … the boss hits us … they behave badly to us," explains Mohamed calmly.

Yet being child slaves is almost a blessing compared to the fate that awaits them when they become adults in Lebanon - particularly the girls.

The fields which exploit them prepare them for further, unimaginable abuse, which even Mohamed cannot know, despite being wiser than his years.

'Survival sex'

According to a recent report by the Freedom Fund, child labor, forced marriages and both adult and child prostitution are now ubiquitous symptoms of Lebanon's ill-conceived refugee policy - and are slowly grinding 1.8 million people down. Laden with debt, they search for a solution to survive.

Additional restrictions on Syrian refugees and new expenses relating to their residency have all contributed to an epidemic of biblical misery: "Survival sex" is now common jargon within UN corridors as it grapples with the phenomenon of forced prostitution and trafficking as a new challenge.

According to the report, child slavery is merely a symptom of a greater epidemic, and the report's authors lash out at "international donors" for getting the math wrong.

"It isn't a matter of should we let refugees work or not," explains Leena Ksaifi, co-author of the report. "It's a matter of how we want to view and frame the Syrian refugee crisis - whether it is a humanitarian crisis or just a security threat. If we look at it as a humanitarian crisis, then we need the government to institute policies that are sustainable and have long-term objectives."

Ksaifi wants much more cooperation between UN agencies and NGOs and has called for initiatives to gather data and monitor the abuse. But UN agencies, which DW spoke to off the record, played down the report, perhaps anxious not to rock the boat with the Lebanese government.

"The Lebanese government needs to be aware of the consequence of policies that can increase vulnerability to slavery," Ksaifi adds. "And this can be brought to its attention by campaigns led by civil society."

Forced into prostitution

Yet perhaps the "consequences" are unthinkable. Families like Mohamed's are lucky if there are many children, as this delays the inevitable for the girls: either forced, early marriage, which can often be with a fake husband who has bought the bride to have her work as a prostitute, or, for those who are lucky enough to find a "normal" job, being forced into "survival sex" with their employer.

Many young women and girls will be forced into the profession of prostitution itself, according to Human Rights Watch.

"The majority of women in prostitution in the country are Syrian, and this proportion has risen since the Syrian conflict sent hundreds of thousands over the border," says Skye Wheeler of Human Rights Watch.

A girl works as slave laborers on the fields of the Bekaa Valley
Refugee girls and young women are especially at risk of being forced into prostitution sooner or laterImage: DW/M. Jay

"We did hear accounts of Syrian women in survival sex, and also we have documented cases where women are being exploited sexually by landlords or other Lebanese men who hold power over them because of their problems with residency."

For Mohamed, it's a scenario he will be spared, but his four sisters likely not. In the meantime, all he can do is stay clear of the land agent's cane and bring home money for food, rent, electricity and water.

"We came from Syria escaping from the war, the rockets and aircraft which threatened our lives ...," he says almost with regret. "I should study well to be able to count the salary they give me after work."