When 13-year-old Mounir fled Syria for Lebanon with his family after surviving a rocket strike that nearly killed them, he thought he would be safe. In fact, he had swapped one form of danger for another – sexual harassment and verbal abuse.
With his father unable to work for health reasons, Mounir had to earn money for his family selling sweets in the city of Tripoli – a job that kept him out on the streets until 11pm, making about 12,000 Lebanese pounds ($8) a day.
“It was very hostile – people used to call me the ‘Syrian dog’ and other things,” Mounir – not his real name – told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I would get really hurt, sometimes I would just sit and cry. It was humiliating.”
Aid groups say more and more Syrian children like Mounir are having to work as poverty intensifies among the about 1 million refugees living in Lebanon – roughly a quarter of the country’s population.
The proportion of Syrian child refugees working in Lebanon has risen to 7 per cent from 4 per cent in late 2016, according to research by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) released early to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It is sad to say that it is only going to get worse,” said Benedict Nixon, spokesman for the Council. “As long as households are not generating income, rates of child labour will continue to increase.”
The United Nations and aid agencies warned last month that a “critical gap” in funding for Syrian refugees and host communities could lead to cuts in vital services.
Globally, conflict and climate-induced disaster have driven more children into working in agriculture, which accounts for 71 per cent of all child labour according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“Households in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, for example, are prone to resort to child labour to ensure the survival of their family,” the FAO said in a statement released on Tuesday to mark World Day Against Child Labour.
Tanya Chapuisat, spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, said Syrian families in Lebanon often had no choice but to send their children to work.
“Families are at their breaking point when it comes to debt, and so to be able to get their basic needs they are sending kids to work,” she said.
Mounir’s mother Hasnaa says she feels intense guilt but has no choice but to send Mounir and his 17-year-old brother out to work rather, depriving them of an education.
The rent alone on the small garage where the family lives is 280,000 Lebanese pounds a month. “It feels like nothing is enough. Everything we have goes into paying for rent,” she said.
More than three quarters of the refugees in Lebanon are living below the poverty line and struggling to survive on less than $4 per day, according to UNICEF, and less than half the Syrian children in the country attend school.
Mounir knows his life is not like most 13-year-olds’.
“A kid should be living a life of dignity and respect with no humiliation,” he said.
Clutching his hands, he recalled the times when men on the street would approach him for sex.
“They tried to do bad things. I would not accept,” he said, as he stared down at the ground.
“This has happened more than once to me on the street. They were all men. Of course I was scared of this. They would ask me to come with them and I would tell them I didn’t want to go.”
Even at 13, he said he was often the oldest on the streets, where children as young as five worked alongside him. Last month he found work closer to home at a barber shop, where he earns 30,000 Lebanese pounds a week sweeping and helping the owner – though he still works 10-hour days.
His favourite subject at school before Syria’s seven-year war cut his education short was maths, and he dreams of going back to learn how to read and write.
“I want to become a mechanic. I like fixing things like motors,” he said with a big, dimpled smile.