Unlike common beliefs, the refugee crisis following the neighboring war in Syria is not the core reason behind this phenomenon. In fact, many factors contribute to the end result of finding a child working or begging on the crowded streets of Lebanon.
Until date, no official statistics can reflect the exact number of street children in Lebanon. Upon the request of former Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi, a joint study conducted in 2015 by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children International (SCI) identified around 1500 street children of which 72% are Syrian natives including Palestinian refugees in Syria, or two times refugees. For the thousands of children on Lebanese streets, other countries of origin include Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt or even Jordan.
In many cases, street children do not hold any identification papers, which makes it even more challenging to enroll in national schools and benefit from healthcare services. Eventually, they will also not be able to integrate full time jobs for a more stable income and future. According to activists, the Lebanese government fears offering ID cards to street children to prevent normalizing their homeless presence and promote responsibility in the face of parents.
Not the best working conditions
Some children have been enrolled in schools at their country of origin, but found themselves working to financially support their non-working parent(s), while others were theoretically born and raised on the streets with various risk factors associated. It is reportedly estimated that street children work for a duration of 8-16 hours on day or night shifts, 6 to 7 days a week. This also depends on the involvement of the child in networks or organized groups recruiting and enforcing labor on children. Responsibilities vary between begging, selling chewing-gum, music CDs, flowers or tissue boxes. Other extremes can imlpy drug dealing, organ trafficking or sex work. They are often forced to work in harsh environments, surrounded by honking cars and exhaust gazes in the intolerable heat or cold, not forgetting the verbal and physical abuse they are exposed to several times a day. Some children even come back home to finish the chores, from washing dishes to babysitting. One child can bring home up to 55,000LBP a day, or what is around 35USD. Where approximately 70% of street children are boys, girls are often victims of arranged or forced marriage, making them less of a responsibility for parents.
Children begging on a passenger's window/The Daily Star Lebanon
In 2010, Lebanon has signed the ILO's Convention on Unacceptable Work for Children tackling slavery, prostitution or child pornography, implication of children in illegal actions such as drug consumption or dealing, or any other field that puts the health or security of children at harm or exploitation, including street work. In Lebanon, it is forbidden by law to engage children under the age of 14 in any form of work. However, when legal measures are taken, street children are arrested and requested to verify their identity by showing their official papers, often unavailable. Non-Governmental Organizations still cannot interfere by withdrawing a child from the streets without court referral. Children who are arrested for child labor will be, in normal cases, referred to specialized NGOs who can then call the parents to sign an agreement on protecting the child from any future risks or labor activities. If facilitated, children can stay in supervised shelters for safety and rehabilitation until the age of 18. Child rights organizations and activists have spent efforts to receive the government’s permission on direct withdrawal of children, with results meeting dead ends especially with the continuous shift of ministries in charge and their heads every while, leaving this issue in the deep bottom of priorities. Furthermore, NGOs are facing serious challenges related to operations and funding, with limited capacity to receive additional children at risk. Some children, even when not involved in conflcit with law, can be transferred to juvenile reformatories for reasons often related to the lack of hosting capacity.
In a broader context, the issue of street children in Lebanon remains minor in comparison to political and security struggles the country has been facing for decades. The desperate conditions of the Lebanese borders did not help monitor the flow of the million refugees currently residing in the country, with very limited support from the international community in this perspective. Policies and laws ensuring child protection are rarely revisited by concerned ministries, notably the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Labor, due to the unsustainable commitment to work closely with security forces, NGOs, INGOS, embassies and UN agencies on protecting street children on the Lebanese territory.
In 2013, the Lebanese government, with the support of the ILO, has established a national action plan to tackle the issue of street children based on the convention of children’s rights. This plan has expired by the end of 2016, yet a lot is left to hope for.
Géopolis; Le Liban confronte à l'afflux des enfants des rues Syriens, Dominique Cettour Rose
Humanium; Ensemble pour les droits de l'enfant: Les enfants des rues au Liban
IRIN; Street children - victims of organised crime
IRIN; Government could do more to tackle child labour
UNICEF; Syrian children forced to quit school, marry early to survive
UNICEF; Syrian refugee children in Lebanon at risk of labour, missing education
UNICEF, ILO, Save the Children, Ministry of Labor; "Children Living and Working on the Streets in Lebanon: Profile and Magnitude"