7 Sep 2015

Refugee camp: child slavery in everything but name

So as Europe bickers and battles over what to do about a few tens of thousands of people trudging across its borders, Syrians in Lebanon are descending into a nightmare existence of virtual child slavery.

It is hard to concentrate in a maths class, I find, wherever you are in the world. But it’s harder doing it when you’ve lived in a filthy overcrowded tent for two or three years. And it’s harder still when you speak Arabic but the lesson is in English. Tough, eh?

But I’m not done. Now try getting up and working from seven the previous evening, two hours on and two hours off, irrigating fields through the night. And all for one dollar in “wages”. Then go and do your division and multiplication. In English.

That is what Hamid and at least half the class of 12-14 year old refugee boys and girls had done overnight, and today we filmed them at the Zahle Refugee Camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

This is what it has come to across Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – child slavery in everything but name. Lebanon’s shame. Our shame too.

The UN programme for funding the Syrian refugee exodus in this region is just 35 per cent funded. So in July they were forced to reduce the food allowance per refugee to just $13 a month. Most Lebanese would spend that in a couple of days. Many would spend it at one meal. That is why Hamid goes to work – to live.

In the tent nearby sits Fatima with her seven children. Three years ago she fled the fighting in al-Rastan in Syria: “We had to get out. It was too much. The children were so very frightened.”

But now this is too much. We speak in her three-room shelter as her husband is out desperately seeking work. “It is just getting worse here now,” she told me. “I want to get out. I want to go to Germany to educate my children – that is the most important thing.”

Yes – they see the TV images of the bodies and the coffins of those who do not make it.  But yes, they see on Facebook you get €1000 settlement in the EU – or so the rumour goes.

And yes, they see the welcome you get now in Austria and Germany. It was on TV. It is the truth. And it was, for a completely insignificant group of people – even though even this was a “crisis” for the EU.

Across the Bekaa Valley in hundreds of camps, across Lebanon, how many more Fatimas are there who increasingly think the deal no longer stacks up in the zombie-like child-labour nightmare which currently passes as “life” here?

Remember: this really is a crisis in Lebanon. At least 1.1 million people, and probably double that, have fled into a poor, fractured country of around 4 million people.

This is what a real refugee crisis looks like and the more the world turns away with its wallet, the more things fall apart, the more this real crisis will come to an EU which is paralytic in the face of the current puny numbers.

Maybe funding the UN around here would be a good plan?

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