"It's really bad being here," laments Ibrahim, a 13-year-old shopkeeper. "My family's at the bottom and the hardest part is that we're in so much debt."
Having escaped to Jordan from Syria with his family, Ibrahim's been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in a downtown shop since he was 10 years old. With lifeless eyes and a sullen face, the Aleppo native explains that his father is sick and his sister needs open heart surgery. Although he's from a family of nine, he's the only one with a job, making the equivalent of around $70 a month when the average monthly salary is almost four times that.
Ibrahim's family pays 280 Jordanian Dinars (JD) — around $395 — a month in rent for their Amman flat, a price that has seen them spiral into debt. Suffering from asthma and exhausted from long hours in the store, he's trying to find cheaper accommodation. In the meantime, however, the weight of the world rests on his young shoulders.
Ibrahim's decision to forego education and enter the labor force is not unique among refugees, with up to 100,000 Syrian children living in the Jordanian capital Amman not going to school.
Unlike the refugee camps where most things are free, Syrians residing in urban centers have to pay for food, shelter, and basic necessities. Currently, Syrians in Jordan are not allowed to work unless they have a permit costing 800JD ($1,100) per year — 16 times the average monthly salary among refugees — forcing children like Ibrahim to work illegally.
The prevalence of child labor is also exacerbated by the fact employers are more inclined to give jobs to minors, owing to the lower wages they command and the fact authorities are more likely to turn a blind eye.
In 2015, the Jordanian government initiated a crackdown on underage employment, closing 353 companies and fining business owners up to 500JD ($705) for employing children below the legal working age of 16. But the issue remains pervasive.
Currently an estimated 46 percent of Syrian boys and 14 percent of Syrian girls under the age of 16 are putting in more than 44 hours a week for below average pay. With over 600,000 Syrian refuges in Jordan — 85 percent of which live in cities, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) — and many adults prevented from working by injury suffered during war in their homeland or the threat of being caught, families are sending children as young as five into the workplace.
"We're losing generations of Syrians and the world will not understand or feel it until it's too late," said UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator Hovig Etyemezian, who manages the Zaatari refugee camp, which lies 43 miles northeast of the capital and just eight miles from the Syrian border.
"Right now we can't feel the impact on the Syrian population of those 70,000 children not going to school, but we'll feel it when they are 16 years old with zero tools with which to engage in life."
In total, almost 3 million Syrian children are not in school, including over 2 million still living in Syria and another 700,000 residing in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
According to UN children's charity UNICEF, which launched its No Lost Generation initiative in 2013 to try to address the problem of Syrian children missing out on education, a lack of schooling opens adolescents and youth up to isolation and depression, and can leave them more likely to engage in criminality, turn to drugs and alcohol, or be radicalized. They're also more prone to stress and likely to experience some form of physical or emotional breakdown at a young age.