Ever since the conflict in Syria broke out more than four years ago, there has been a startling increase in the number of Syrian children being pushed out of school and into exploitative forms of work in order to provide for their families.
Those are the findings of a new report released Thursday by Save the Children and UNICEF that describes how more and more Syrian children, some as young as six years old, are becoming the breadwinners of their family due to poverty and because their caregivers have died or can no longer work for health reasons.
The International Labor Organization defines child labor as work that deprives children, anyone under 18, of "their potential and dignity" and that harms their physical and mental development.
In some cases, Syrian children are being recruited to work as soldiers, beg for money in the streets, smuggle goods across borders, and operate heavy machinery on farms.
Before the war, almost all children in Syria went to school, and literacy rates were above 90 percent, the report notes. Now, more than 2.7 million children are not attending school. According to 2014 data from the World Bank, there were more than 6 million Syrian children under 14 years of age. An estimated 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced.
Helen Mould, an advocacy manager for Save the Children, told VICE News that life for children still living in Syria has been quickly deteriorating, leaving them more vulnerable to abuse and desperate for cash.
"One of the most concerning things I've heard from inside Syria is the children working in the steel markets. This is something that wasn't happening before," Mould said.
"What they do is they follow the tankers and they use sponges to soak up the fuel that has dripped from them and squeeze that into plastic containers. And they sell that for a small amount of money. But these children develop really serious skin problems. And this work is dangerous because the markets are unregulated, so there's a real risk of explosions and fires that could put their lives at risk or injure them."
The situation for Syrian children in Jordan is especially dire, the report notes, as two out of three Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the extreme poverty line, making around $3 per day. Almost half of refugee families there told report authors they rely solely on the money earned by a child.
"We're not only extremely concerned that children younger than 16 and 17 are working, but we're concerned about the types of work they are doing now. And the worst forms of labor are becoming more common," Juliette Touma, a UNICEF spokesperson told VICE News from Amman, Jordan, which is home to more than 620,000 Syrian refugees.
In the Jordan valley, Syrian children are working agricultural jobs operating dangerous equipment in extreme temperatures. Almost 18 percent of Syrian children working there are under 12 years old.
And the vast majority of working children work more than eight hours per day, earning from $4 to $7, which is usually a fraction of what an adult would make in the same job.
In Jordan's Za'atari refugee camp, where more than 80,000 Syrians are living, 75 percent of working children there reported health problems to the study's authors.
The situation is similar for Syrian refugee children in Iraq and Lebanon.
"My children used to go to school and now I'm seeing them killing themselves, working from eight in the morning till nine at night, and coming home exhausted," one father of four children who now work in a steel factory in northern Iraq told report authors.
One 13-year-old boy from Syria named Salem told researchers about his job harvesting potatoes in Lebanon. "We have to be really fast and we shouldn't leave any potato behind or else we get beaten with a plastic hose," he said. "I collect about 30 bags of potatoes each day and my back hurts a lot. When we come back to the tent, I immediately go to sleep."
In other parts of the country, 10-year-old boys are working full-time as mechanics, welders, and carpenters. Young girls work as cleaners or farm workers. Many young girls, most of whom are under the age of 11, beg for money on the streets.
In order to curb the growing problem of child labor among Syrians, the report stresses the need for funding for projects aimed at providing schooling for children and calls on the governments in countries hosting Syrian refugees to make it easier for them to access fair employment opportunities.
"These children tell us they have dreams and aspirations, too. They are also missing out on their fundamental right to an education and being placed in physical harm," said Mould. "Most importantly, this is the generation that's going to have to rebuild Syria when, hopefully, the conflict comes to an end. That means these children need to be back in school where they can gain the skills to do this."
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Watch the VICE News Documentary, "Syria: Al-Qaeda's New Home:"
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