Children working: The only option for some refugee families

A 12-year-old refugee boy working in a barbershop in Jordan, where he sweeps the floors and keeps the place clean (photo taken in November 2013)

You’ve escaped your country to protect your children. How could you contemplate sending your child out to work?

In a large dilapidated community centre, I met a group of CARE’s ‘Information Volunteers’ from the Syrian community now living, or should I say just surviving, in Gaziantep, Turkey. It’s cold, and I don’t take off my coat, scarf or winter hat.

The volunteers are here for a training session to find out how to identify particularly vulnerable families for referral. This town, located 60km from the Syrian border, is now home to many Syrian refugee families who fled from Kobane in the summer of 2015. In total it’s estimated that there are over 2.5 million refugees in Turkey, with the majority living in urban areas. They pay high rents, facing discrimination by landlords and their host communities. According to UNHCR, around half of all Syrian refugees in Turkey are children.

Refugee volunteers in Turkey at a CARE training session
Information volunteers being trained in case management

Amongst the group of approximately 20 women and men are teachers, students, engineers, housewives and an ex-freelance journalist. Well-spoken, educated and likeable, the group are responsible for providing information to refugees on what services (such as health services) they can access. They also help to identify particularly vulnerable families who may need more support, for example those with disabilities.

When asked about their main concerns, and those of the families they speak with, the answer is unanimous:

Our biggest problem is financial.

The ex-journalist tells me: “We can’t work legally here. Many refugees are working illegally for very little pay, and sometimes the employers don’t pay us at all. In the winter it’s particularly hard. Most of the work we do is agricultural, working in the fields. But in the winter there is no work.”

Whilst many families are supported with their rent, and to some extent to pay for food, this is simply not enough to pay the bills. Especially during these cold winter months where temperatures can drop to below freezing in this region of Turkey.

What happens when people are caught working illegally?

It’s simple. If they are adults, they are sent to the refugee camps, and once inside the camps, they are unable to leave unless it’s back to Syria, where many of their homes are now reduced to piles of rubble.

And how long might they be in the camps for? An analysis of similar conflicts shows that people who have fled their home as a result of conflict, such as the Syrian crisis, are displaced for an average of 17 years. No one wants to be in a refugee camp – whilst inside Syria, work opportunities are also limited, food prices are sky-high and many families are struggling to feed themselves.

And what happens if children are caught working? Nothing.

In a country where half of the refugee population are children, it’s understandable that people would choose to send their children out to work. It’s sheer desperation.

The Syrian refugees sitting in the cold community centre talk openly about children in their communities working. They tell me that children as young as six are collecting rubbish for 10 hours a day, and for just £0.80.

Right now, as I write and as you read this, there are children in the cold winter months working for next to nothing.

It’s clear that this is shameful for the refugees, as no-one I met admitted that their own children are working.

But if refugees are not allowed to work, and are not given enough to survive on, what choice do they have but to seek alternatives? And who can judge the decisions they make in order to feed their children, keep warm and to keep a roof over their heads?

It’s heart-breaking what these families have been through and how their suffering continues.

A welcome announcement

The Turkish government recently announced a promise to release more work permits for Syrian refugees, although the number who can apply is not yet clear or what the selection process or cost might be. And the three main refugee-hosting countries, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, also agreed, at the London Conference on Syria on 4 February, to take steps to open up their labour markets to refugees.

This is a step in the right direction. For now, CARE’s hardworking and dedicated field staff, supported by our information volunteers, will continue to provide support to the most vulnerable families in the areas where we are working.

By Shabby Amini, CARE International UK director of fundraising, partnerships and communications

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