Syrian refugee children in Lebanon at risk of child labour, missing out on education

Economic pressures are forcing refugee children to forgo schooling and enter the labour market

By Hedinn Halldorsson
A girl picks crop in a field in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
30 January 2017

If you had never been to school, how would you imagine a classroom? Many Syrian children living in Lebanon can only dream of the inside of a school, having never received any formal education. Learn how economic pressures are forcing these refugee children to forgo schooling and enter the labour market.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, 30 January 2017 – Most people can’t imagine life without education. Dyana can’t imagine a life with education. She has to dream of a classroom because she’s never seen one.

“I imagine a school to be very beautiful. With paintings of girls and boys on the walls,” she says.

It is past noon and she’s sitting in the shade by the shed she calls home, in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. There are thousands of informal settlements like this in Lebanon.

Dyana is 13 years old and should have had years of schooling. Instead, she spends her days in the fields working for a meagre pay. Once home, shortly before night falls, she helps her mother with house chores and watches her sisters.

Her younger sisters remember nothing but war. Dyana however, can recall a life more ordinary.

“Five years. That’s how long I've been here. We came here to work as the situation was becoming really bad in Syria,” she says. “I was never enrolled in school back home so I never learned how to read. And once we got here I didn't go either as I needed to help my mother.” 

Dyana stands for a photo in the doorway of a shelter
Syrian refugee Dyana, 13, who does not attend school, stands in the doorway of a shelter in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
“I pick potatoes”

The Bekaa valley has the highest concentration of Syrian refugees in all of Lebanon. In some villages, the Syrians outnumber the Lebanese. The country itself hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, or one in four.

The valley is a fertile agricultural area, so there is high demand for cheap labour. Child labour is rife. Syrian refugee adults have restricted access to the labour market in Lebanon, which often forces children to become breadwinners. Children are paid less than adults, are not required to show identification papers at checkpoints, and are less likely to know their rights.

“I pick potatoes in the field under the sun because we need all the money we can get,” Dyana says.

The work in the fields of the Bekaa is seasonal, which greatly impacts children’s attendance to school. Even if children are enrolled in public schools, they may be absent for periods, or drop out completely if their family’s economic situation worsens.

Not only is the number of Syrian child labourers growing, but the percentage of Lebanese children engaged in worst forms of child labour is rising as well. Poor Lebanese families often face precisely the same challenges as Syrian refugee families, a great majority of whom have settled in Lebanon’s poorest areas. Nonetheless, Syrian children still account for 3 out 4 children living and working on the streets.

“In this context, child labour is extremely difficult to tackle. Since it is often the only income of a Syrian family, apart from the support from different UN agencies and NGOs, the childrens’ salary can make a crucial difference to their survival,” says Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF representative in Lebanon. “What we can do is intervene in cases of harsh child labour, advocate for reduced working hours and, last but not least – make it possible for Syrian families to send their children to school instead of sending them to work in farmlands and construction sites.”

A closing door

Protracted crises like the one in the Syrian Arab Republic and neighbouring countries not only temporarily interrupt children’s education and lives, but can also close the door on education for a lifetime.

Dyana’s story is the story of more than two million Syrian children living as refugees across the Middle East – children whose hopes and right to education has been shattered.

Mohamad, who is 15 and has been out of school for six years, fears it’s too late for him to go back. “Every year that passes makes it more difficult,” he says.

To watch an interview with Dyana and learn what’s stopping her and other Syrian refugee children in Lebanon from going to school, and what UNICEF is doing about it, visit