To Catch a Dream: Syrian Refugee Children on the Streets of Beirut

In Lebanon, children are falling through the cracks caused by political and security deterioration and a growing refugee crisis. In recognition of this systematic and widespread neglect, Lebanon launched the National Action Plan for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Labour in 2013. As part of efforts to support this initiative, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNICEF, and Save the Children International commissioned a study on the current crisis of street children in Lebanon, at the request of Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour.  Here, Vanessa Thevathasan discusses the findings.

The study identified four main factors that are causing children to live or work on the streets of Lebanon: social exclusion, vulnerability of households, the influx of Syrian refugees flowing into Lebanon, exploitation of children and organised crime. UNHCR estimates that there are more than 400,000 child refugees from Syria currently in Lebanon, more than the population of Lebanese children in public schools.

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A refugee filling an application at the UNHCR registration center in Tripoli, Lebanon © Mohamed Azakir / World Bank/Creative Commons License

Many of the 1,510 children in the report are refugees displaced by conflict. The study found that 73 percent are Syrian and 8 percent Palestinian, and as many of half are between 10 and 14 years old. Without a cessation to conflict and concerted efforts towards permanent peace across the Middle East, children will continue to be forced to flee their homes and country. The Syrian conflict, which has moved into its fourth year, has been the main cause behind the rapid rise in child refugees. Families forced to seek refuge in Jordan arrive with little to their name. The consequence is that all family members, including children, are involved in their family’s survival as refugees in a foreign land with few support systems.

The type of work that children are doing includes begging and street vending. There are also instances where children are involved in prostitution. Most of the children are illiterate and have never set foot in a school. This will have potentially devastating consequences on the rates of illiteracy for the current generation, drastically impeding their ability to participate fully in society.

Education in Lebanon is neither free nor compulsory. High dropout rates, especially in neglected areas, are a major problem. Abir Abi Khalil, UNICEF child protection officer, highlights the challenges stating: “these children are working because they want to survive, and in the absence of any income support for them or their families, it will be difficult to stop them, remove them from the streets and put them back into education…many of the kids…don’t have hope, and this is their reality.”  

Lebanon ratified the International Convention in the Rights of the Child in 1991 ensuring that the rights of all children, regardless of their nationality or legal status, are protected. Child protection is inadequate.

The Internal Security Forces (ISF) are responsible for policing the exploitation of street children but admit that there is little they can do without proper referral mechanisms to keep children off the street.  Currently, there is only one organisation in Lebanon that works with street children alongside ISF but offers severely limited rehabilitation services, is chronically under-funded, and has to release custody of children if they are claimed by their relatives – even if it is believed that a family member is abusing or exploiting the child.

Children have also complained of mistreatment by ISF. War Child found that of the 19 inspectors it worked with, none were aware that they were responsible for investigating instances of child labour, nor were they aware that there is a child labour unit within the Ministry of Labour.

The report was released with videos featuring the testimony of street children voiced over animated drawings of their experiences. The stories of Samir and Mustafa highlight the challenges and risks children are exposed to on the streets.

Samir, a Palestinian, has a common story.  At the tender age of just 12 years old, he has been begging on the streets for years and has had to learn to look out for himself: “My mother left when I was five, and now my father beats me and makes me beg for money.” This cycle of tragedy is relentless and it is not just familial violence that children are exposed to.

Mustafa, 11 years old, describes his life selling flowers to raise money for his family recalling “[a] lot of people mocked me, insulted me and beat me…Once a drunk man came out of a pub and stabbed me in the arm with a knife.” Children are the most vulnerable in Lebanon with few safe passages open to them out of poverty, exploitation, violence and crime. The study spotlights the need for street children to become a priority intervention area.

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Syrian refugees have found temporary safety in Kafar Kahel informal settlement in the Koura District, in Lebanon, on June 2, 2014. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank, Creative Commons License

The number of children begging on the streets of Lebanon is one of the most visible signs of a country’s refugee crisis.  Children are on the street because they have to eat but often find themselves in dangerous and precarious situations. If we are to see a shift to a more hopeful, safer and more prosperous future for these children, the Lebanese government must work with NGOs, children and parents to assess their individual situations and provide needs-based assistance to sustainably take children off the streets and back into school.

Children must be given the opportunity to experience a future they deserve, which means using investment, resources and political will to create a protective environment for children so they have unimpeded access to education and means out of poverty. The study will provide a baseline from which tailored and extensive programmes can emerge to tackle the issue head on. This is no doubt a start, but every success must be scaled up.

*All children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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