The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported in January 2018 that continuing violence, internal and external displacement, natural disasters, growing economic and gender inequality, and high rates of youth unemployment and poverty in several countries have left 28 million children in need of humanitarian assistance – water and sanitation, education, health care and protection services – across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Among the first threats affecting children living in MENA conflict areas is child labour. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), child labour refers to work that ‘is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work’.
Globally, 218 million children aged between 5 and 17 work, including 73 million engaged in hazardous jobs. Protracted conflicts, notably wars in the MENA region, have produced large numbers of displaced people, with most refugee children having to work to help their families survive. Child labour often means not being able to go to school, resulting in illiteracy. In 2016, UNICEF reported that 2.1 million children in Syria and 700,000 Syrian refugee children do not have access to education.
In Yemen, according to the NGO Save the Children, ‘more than a million children are currently internally displaced and double that number are out of school, meaning a quarter of school-aged children are missing out on an education’. More than 1.3 million children work in Yemen. Without any form of education, these countries will likely face major challenges when these children become adults.
In Jordan, 88.3 per cent of child labourers are boys, 80 per cent are Jordanians and 14.6 per cent are Syrians, according to UNICEF. Even if they are not refugees, Jordanian child labourers exist because of economic hardship: the poverty rate in Jordan increased from 13.3 per cent in 2008 to 14.4 per cent in 2010, and to almost 20 per cent in 2014.
Poverty is also a driver of child labour and illiteracy in Egypt where, in 2014, the World Food Programme and European Union reported that the number of employed minors jumped to at least 2.7 million, 5.6 per cent of them working under hazardous conditions. These are worrying numbers given that one child in four is affected by poverty in the MENA region.
“Child poverty is about so much more than family income – it’s about access to quality education, healthcare, a home and safe water. When children are deprived of the basics, they are at risk of getting trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The issue of child labour is guided by three main international conventions: the International Labour Organization Convention No. 138 concerning the minimum age for admission to employment, and Recommendation No. 146 (1973); ILO Convention No. 182 concerning the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, and Recommendation No. 190 (1999); and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
All MENA countries have ratified the UN convention, but putting it into action takes longer in conflict situations when children need it most. For example, in Lebanon, around 180,000 Syrian children displaced by war are working, mostly in the agricultural sector and prostitution. In 2016, the Lebanese government took small steps to eliminate child labour, such as releasing a guide on how to implement the ILO’s Decree No. 8987 on hazardous work, developing a National Awareness-raising Strategy to increase public awareness about hazardous work and introducing a programme to expand children’s access to education.
In Syria, children continue to face and suffer from the consequences of the conflict. In July 2018, 180,000 children in southern Syria were displaced. “Humanitarian assistance and protection are neither a privilege nor a luxury; they are a fundamental right of every Syrian boy and girl,” Cappelaere said in a statement. “Facilitating timely, quality and at-scale humanitarian assistance through whichever means possible across the lines of fire and from neighbouring countries is the minimum we owe these children. If we collectively fail in this duty, children will continue paying the heaviest price of a war not of their making.” He also mentioned the death of 65 children in less than three weeks.
In Yemen’s 3.5-year war against the Houthi rebels, children are frequent victims of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, prompting 24 international organizations on children’s rights to write an open letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres in June 2018. The letter read in part: ‘As organizations working to protect children in situations of war, we sincerely welcome your decision in 2017 to include the Saudi Arabia-led coalition along with other violators in the annexes of your Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict … based on credible UN-verified evidence of violations against children in armed conflict. As your report noted, the coalition was responsible for killing and injuring at least 683 children during 2016. …
In 2017, however, the coalition continued its child rights violations, including air strikes that have killed and maimed scores of children. We believe that the coalition’s measures to protect children have been insufficient.’
Yemeni children are particularly at risk, with UNICEF saying that five children per day have been killed or injured since March 2015, and that another 400,000 are severely malnourished and fighting for their lives. “This is a children’s crisis,” said Bismarck Swangin, a communications specialist for UNICEF Yemen. “When you look at the number of children who are staring at death due to malnourishment, and now that is compounded by a cholera outbreak, children are not only being killed directly as a result of the conflict, but more children are at risk and could die from indirect consequences.”