Abdul Rahman, an eight-year-old refugee from Syria, rummages through a trash container along the side road of north Amman’s bustling Sweileh neighborhood. His sparkling green eyes stare out from his dirty, emaciated face. His bony legs appear from under torn blue trousers. The pint-sized child separates soda cans and scrap metal. “One bag for cola cans and a second for toys and old gadgets,” he explains.
Rahman’s six-year-old brother Ahmed tries to hide from the scorching sun, finding relief in the shade provided by the container.”I work with my brother for a man who sells scrap metal from a truck,” Abdul Rahman tells The Media Line. “We travel everywhere from the morning until late in the afternoon,” he says, wiping the sweat off his forehead.
“I live with my mother and four brothers. I take care of them,” he says proudly.
In a nearby barbershop, Jehad, an eight-year-old Syrian boy, works in a less demanding job, sweeping the floor and washing customers’ hair.
While working conditions for the boys differ, they share the same plight. Along with thousands of others they have been forced out of school to help put bread on the table.
Barbershop owner Ali says he is doing the boy a favor by employing him.
“We have dozens of poor Syrians who cannot pay their rent, let alone find food. More Syrian children are joining the labor market,” he tells The Media Line.
Officials from the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) say they assist more than 300,000 refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, providing drinkable water, adequate sanitation, education, and protection from verbal and sexual abuse.
UNICEF media chief in Amman Samir Badran says a lack of resources and a daily increase in the number of Syrian asylum seekers are other obstacles in determining the scope of the problem and finding ways to deal with this burgeoning new reality.
“We are working closely with officials from the Jordanian labor and social development ministries on the issue of Syrian children in the labor market. Our concern is that children are working under difficult conditions that could be very risky for them,” Badran told The Media Line.
Jordan is home to 400,000 Syrian refugees, with about a quarter of them living in the Za’atari refugee camp. As the security situation in Syria worsens, up to 4,000 Syrians are fleeing to Jordan daily.
Badran admitted that the number of children in the Jordanian labor market would only increase.
“Children should be studying, not working. We expect to see more Syrian children in the labor market. The onus is on owners of small businesses not to abuse them,” he added.
The Jordanian government last week announced it was intensifying its inspection efforts to flush out illegal workers.
Jordanian labor ministry officials said they noticed a high number of children working, especially in small businesses.
Ministry of labor inspector Kamel Samee said child labor in Jordan is widespread. He said children are working in car repair workshops, small factories, shops, in Jordan Valley farms or selling gum at traffic lights. Reports by refugees and locals about the situation suggest that sexual abuse of children has been added to the misery of displacement and personal tragedies.
Abdul Rahman says he wants to study, but admits his family needs his help. “I have not gone to school in a year. I miss my school and playing with my friends,” he told The Media Line before returning to sifting through the trash container.