More than 150 million children worldwide are affected by child labour in conflict and in disaster settings. Africa has the highest incidence with approximately 72.1 million (48%) followed by Asia and the Pacific with 62.1 million (40%) and the Americas with 10.7 million (7%). 5.5 million children – 3.6% of the total figures – are engaged in child labour in Europe and Central Asia. In the Arab States, the percentage of child labour of 0.7% is lower than in other regions but still affects 1.2 million kids.
Child labour is prohibited by several legal conventions. ILO Convention No. 182 often referred to as the “Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention” provides important guidelines on the worst types of child labour that need to be prohibited and eliminated by States. ILO Convention 138 entitled “Minimum Age Convention” likewise upholds in Article 7 that children at an early age should not undertake employment considered “to be harmful to their health or development.”
Although the incidence of child labour in the Middle East and in North Africa is lower than in other parts of the world, it remains a major challenge for some specific countries in the Arab region owing to the proliferation of conflict.
The war in Syria is a major humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. Several hundred thousand civilians have died, whereas it is estimated that approximately 6 million people are internally displaced and 5 million are refugees. A figure that is often left unaddressed is the incidence of child labour involving Syrian refugee and displaced children. These children perform hazardous work and hard labour under harsh and unsustainable working conditions. Organized crime groups exploit children for financial gains. Child labour has now reached a disturbing level among Syrian refugee children. Yemen has also witnessed the growth of child labour owing to the war that is unfolding in the country.
According to a joint UNHCR-IOM press release, it was concluded that the deteriorating situation in Yemen has pushed children into “danger and adversity” including child labour and hazardous work. Other Arab countries facing turmoil and civil war – such as Libya and Iraq – also experience a resurgence of child labour as a result of the disintegration and of the fragmentation of these societies. Thus, children in the Arab region are not being spared from the adverse impacts of wars and conflicts. They are its easiest victims to target.
Despite this troubling context, there is hope on the horizon. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underscore the importance of addressing and of ending child labour. SDG 8.7 stipulates the need to end child labour “in all its forms” by 2025. Arab states may work jointly towards the realization of this imperative goal by 2030. Arab States have showed great dedication and commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); I remain convinced that similar progress can and will be realized vis-à-vis the SDGs.
The deteriorating security situation and the growing threat of famine throw societies into a situation of great vulnerability. The lack of decent work and the spread of poverty provide fertile ground for child labour to prosper as economically disadvantaged families send their children – in particular girls – to engage in child labour. To reverse this trend, war-torn societies need to restore safe living conditions and peaceful prospects. The return to peace is the first step towards the full elimination of child labour. It is likewise important that justice prevail in cases where abuses against children are documented. Impunity should not become the norm of societies recovering from war and conflict.
Lastly, despite a massive influx of refugees and internally displaced persons to Europe, the heaviest burden by far is borne by Muslim societies in neighbouring countries bordering war-torn countries of departure of refugees and other migrants. It is therefore important to step up the efforts of the international community to provide adequate support and assistance to such countries welcoming a high percentage of migrants and refugees including children relative to their own population.
No children in the world should face conflict and war. They should spend their childhood and youth in harmony and in peaceful surroundings. Children in the Arab region and elsewhere in the world and in particular the girl-child should be insulated from all forms of physical and verbal violence.