BEIRUT Syrian refugees in Lebanon are becoming increasingly reliant on child labor to earn money for families now desperate to maintain basic necessities, the director of the United Nations children's agency said.
Unlike other host countries, Lebanon has no formal camps to offer a safety net for Syrian refugees. Many are working to provide their own food, clean water and shelter, and children risk being pulled out of school and into the workforce.
"Families are poor and destitute after two and a half years of war ... Often, in order to continue living here they have a lot of expenses they need to pay and the result is kids have to work," said Maria Calivis, the UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"Many of these children need to get a wage to help their parents have enough to feed them."
In an interview on Thursday, Calivis said that of about 400,000 registered refugee children, only a quarter are enrolled in public schools, leaving aid groups to fill the gap.
Many of those who can study are living in informal tented communities with no permanent classrooms.
Lebanon has not allowed aid groups to set up formal refugee camps, partially out of a reluctance to make the refugee crisis more visible. Lebanese are also wary due their experience with Palestinian refugee camps, which were infiltrated by militants during the country's own 1975-1990 civil war.
"We can't have permanent tents," Calivis said. "Every night, we take the tents down, and every morning they have to be put back up. So imagine, that is 365 days, take tents up and down, for 300,000 refugee students."
"A PASSPORT FOR THE FUTURE"
Roughly 750,000 Syrian refugees are in Lebanon according to U.N. figures. It predicts that number will rise to 1.3 million by January and to 1.6 million, or 37 percent of the country's pre-crisis population, by the end of next year.
Many Syrian families flee without the male head of household, either because he has been killed or has stayed in Syria. Refugee families have few options to make ends meet.
Many women and children are working on farms, and UNICEF also believes Syrian children may be working in factories but it is still investigating the problem, Calivis said.
Children working as street vendors, selling food, toys or flowers, have become a common sight in Beirut. They are often earning as little as $2.50 to $5 a day, Calivis said.
UNICEF and its partners are trying to raise awareness among families about the risk of exploitation and abuse, she said, while negotiating with employers to give children the afternoons off to continue their studies.
According to the United Nations, more than 2 million people have fled Syria's brutal civil war, half of them children.
Education and sanitation are currently UNICEF's top priorities. Each of those projects are only half-funded this year so far, and need about $80 million before the end of 2013.
"When we visited places inside Syria, we would see in the middle of the shelling, parents holding their kids by the hand and accompanying them to nearby schools. That is how crucial they saw their children's education," Calivis said.
"Education is a passport for their future when they've lost everything else."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)