Thousands of children in Syria are being forced out of school and into hazardous work

Thousands of children in Syria are being forced out of school and into hazardous work

Nadim Naqo at his workplace in eastern Aleppo. The 11-year-old boy polishes metal parts by hand, without even the most basic protective equipment.

(Emad Al Basiri)

Child labour is a widespread reality in many countries of the Arab world and although it forms part of everyday life in the region, the problem takes on particularly perilous and alarming proportions in the case of Syria, where the social fabric and the education system are suffering the devastating effects of a war that has been underway for over 11 years. Thousands of children in the north-west of the country are being forced out of school and into the labour market, under highly vulnerable conditions. Many find themselves having to take on very hard and hazardous work in sectors such as rudimentary oil refining, where their lives are put at risk both by the nature of the work and its potential to be turned into a military target.

One of these children is Jamil Al-Safirani, a 14-year-old boy currently living in Tarhin, north-east of Aleppo, where he has spent most of his life since being displaced with his family when the forces of the Damascus regime – backed by Iranian militia – took control of his hometown of Al-Safira, south-east of Aleppo, in 2013.

Jamil has been working in the makeshift crude oil refineries in his current village for three years now. He was just 11 years old when he was forced to leave school and to start working there to help support his family, despite the risks and illnesses linked to such tasks.

In Tarhin, as in many parts of northern Syria, where orchards and olive groves once flourished, the landscape is now littered with pools of crude oil that are burned and refined in a very primitive way to produce a type of diesel, known as mazut, which millions of people use every day as fuel for transport, heating and cooking. These so-called ‘oil burners’ are fields converted into highly precarious refining facilities, where crude oil, imported from other parts of the country controlled by US-backed forces, is distilled and processed into fuel in a very rudimentary way. Dozens of lives are claimed every year in the fields where this makeshift oil refining is undertaken, not only as a result of the occasional accident and explosion during the production process but also due to the poisoning caused by the constant inhalation of the toxic fumes that not only blacken the air in these improvised oil fields but also generate heavy and acidic pollution that severely affects the local population and spreads over hundreds of kilometres.

“I have had to work in this oil field for many hours a day, despite the dangers, and the breathing difficulties and skin disorders affecting not just me but all the children and other workers in this profession,” Jamil explains.

These makeshift refineries ensure sufficient supply to meet local demand for fuel, but the hundreds of children who work in the sector – collecting the waste left over from burning crude oil, cleaning the burners and removing impurities – are constantly exposed to toxic substances that cause a range of ailments ranging from chronic coughs and allergic asthma to acute bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as the risk of fatal explosions caused by the slightest oversight or fuel leak.

Added to this is the threat that the refineries could be bombed at any moment. “I’ve survived several Russian bombings targeting the Tarhin burners,” confirms Jamil. Indeed, the oil incinerators where he risks his health and life on a daily basis have been bombed several times by Russian and the Syrian regime’s military aircraft. Three civilians and a Syrian Civil Defence volunteer were killed in such attacks in March 2021.

A fragile and precarious environment

The ongoing violence, the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic are pushing families in Syria to the brink of the abyss, with almost 90 per cent of the country’s children already in need of humanitarian assistance, according to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Having experienced a succession of economic crises, the number of Syrians living below the poverty line now exceeds 90 per cent of the population, according to the UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, who underlines that many Syrians are forced to make very difficult choices to make ends meet.

That is what Nadim Naqo, an 11-year-old boy from the city of al-Bab, north-east of Aleppo, has been doing for half his life. He has been forced to work alongside his father doing the arduous task of polishing metal parts by hand. “I started working with him when I was six years old. I had no choice but to do it because I’d been moved from one place to another so many times that I wasn’t even able to go to school,” the young boy recounts. “My biggest dream was to learn a good trade to be able to help my family and relieve my father of some of the burden of the high cost of living.”

While some of his friends still go to school, others have also had to leave the classroom behind to help their families. “I love school and I would like to go back, but living conditions are hard and I have already lost many years of schooling,” he explains, adding that his hands are constantly hurting. “The good thing about my job is that my father is by my side, and sometimes, on my days off, I can play with my friends.

In the same city of al-Bab, 49-year-old Umayyah Sfirani, a mother displaced from her rural hometown south of Aleppo, confirms that her four children, who also work in the oil refineries, were forced to give up school by a quite common combination of factors: poor living conditions and the lack of opportunities resulting from their having to flee the war. “I know how dangerous this work is, but we had no choice,” she says. What her children earn allows them to cover the family’s basic needs under very difficult conditions, although everything seems to be getting worse. “I hope they’re able to go back to school when the situation settles down and we can go back to our homes,” she says, but admits that, for now, “unfortunately, it’s a faraway dream”.

Solutions in sight?

According to a recent report by Save the Children, two out of three children in northern Syria are already deprived of schooling, and some 2.45 million children had dropped out of school by the end of 2019 across the country. And although all of Syria is affected by school abandonment and child labour, the problem may be even greater in the part of the country controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s government. Although no official figures are available, the contacts on the ground probed by the journalists writing this article seem to confirm the fact.

As Kathryn Achilles, advocacy, media and communications director for Save the Children’s Syria Response Office, told Equal Times, the children who end up dropping out of school because of the war and the general economic situation often do so under extreme pressure. Faced with the urgency of finding food, clean water and safe shelter, children often feel they have no choice but to work to help their families survive.

Jihad Al-Hijazi, the interim government’s education minister in the north-eastern region under the control of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told Equal Times that the main factor driving children to leave school for work is the bombing by the Damascus regime, with military support from Moscow. In addition to the physical destruction of the schools themselves, families have been forcibly displaced to safer parts of the country, leaving many children with no choice but to work to help their parents make ends meet when they reach their new place of refuge.

While the Syrian people used to be among the region’s most committed to supporting the education of the younger generation, Al-Hijazi underlined that the social instability, the war, bombings and the mass displacement of people have resulted in many losing the land and properties that once provided them with a livelihood.

According to the interim minister, to solve the school dropout and child labour issues, the first priority should be to reintegrate children who are still of school age, through intensive education programmes specially designed for them, taking into account the length of time spent away from the classroom.

To make this possible, financial support would have to be provided to families currently dependent on the income these children bring in, as well as vocational, technical and artisanal education programmes for children and adults who would struggle to integrate back into traditional education programmes.

For Achilles, addressing this problem “requires the various humanitarian actors coming together to identify children who are working or at risk of having to work, to ensure that families have the cash and the support needed to access employment and sources of income, and to enable children to go to school and to get back into the system. Above all,” she concludes, “concerted efforts are needed to end the conflict and help families recover.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

This story was a collaboration between Baynana – the first refugee-led media outlet publishing in Spanish and Arabic – and Equal Times