To have a bright future, it’s important to stay in school and get an education. And for a child’s development, it’s important to avoid child labor, which is dangerous to a child’s mental and physical well-being. All of this is well known – so why do so many refugee children end up engaged in child labor rather than enrolled in school? Get the answers in this article.

How many refugee children go to school?

About half of all school-age refugee children do not go to school. And the older the child, the further they lag behind the educational attainment of their non-refugee peers around the world.

In 2019, the UN did a survey of how many refugees go to school compared to other children and young people:

  • Among younger children, 63% of refugees go to primary school, compared to 91% of children globally.
  • Among older children, 24% of refugees go to secondary school compared to 84% of children globally.
  • Only 3% of refugees go on to tertiary education, compared to 37% globally.

Why do so many refugee children not go to school?

There are many reasons why displaced children do not go to school. In areas of conflict and war, their schools may be destroyed or closed for security reasons. In areas with many refugees, there may be so many children that schools are forced to stop accepting new students, or perhaps there are no schools at all in the areas where the refugees have sought shelter.

However there are still many refugee children who do have access to schooling, but still do not attend. There are also a number of reasons why this may be the case. Some children are too traumatized by war and their escape to participate in standard schooling. Others, thanks to the difficult economic circumstances faced by many refugees, are forced to drop out of school and find work to help their family raise money for food and other basic needs.

He loves going to school, but has to support his family

14-year-old Omar dropped out of school after 6th grade. Now he is working to help his family survive, but he knows that not getting an education will affect his future.

How many refugee children are engaged in child labor?

Nobody knows exactly. But according to the UN, more than one in four children living in the world’s poorest countries are engaged in child labor.

As the vast majority of refugees are fleeing to poor countries, often after having lost everything they own, refugee children are frequently at high risk of being pressured into child labor to help support their desperate families.

Why is child labor a problem?

It is perfectly normal and unproblematic for children and young people to have a sensible part-time job or do some housework for their family for pocket money. This is not child labor.

Child labor is when children do a job that they are too young for, which is either potentially dangerous for them – affecting their physical, mental and social development – or prevents them from going to school and getting an education.

How do we help children avoid child labor and get an education?

It is rare for parents to engage their children in child labor out of desire. It happens because the parents are desperate and need money for food and survival. When we learn that a child is engaged in child labor, we try to help the whole family become more economically stable.

This can be through providing emergency assistance or financial aid. Or by helping the parents get a job through vocational training or internship schemes. Or by providing microloans so that the parents can establish a business of their own. When the family has their needs met, the child can stop working and once again have the opportunity to attend school and have a childhood filled with play and friends.

Children should have the right to education and play

Nour, 11

Real-life story: 11-year-old Nour vomits and suffers back pain from child labor

Nour was six years old when she started school in her hometown of Raqqa in Syria. But she only managed to go for a single week before the war in Syria forced her and her family to flee.

The escape turned her life upside down. Instead of a childhood of education and leisure, she has been thrown into a life of toil, without schooling, where she has to work hard alongside fully-grown adults so that her family can keep food on the table.

Today, Nour is 11 years old and lives with her family in an informal tent camp in Lebanon. Her days are spent harvesting potatoes and onions for a local farmer. Her workday starts at five in the morning, with her first break a full six hours later. The many hours of physically intense work under the scorching sun are detrimental to her health.

“Sometimes I vomit when I get home. My back hurts to carry all the heavy sacks of potatoes,” Nour says.

Nour and another girl are the only children working on the farm. All the other employees are adults.

A vital contribution for the family

“When I see the other children spending their day at school and playing, I feel that everyone else actually has a life - except me,” says Nour.

Nour's income is vital for the family, as her father suffered a debilitating accident and can no longer work. Nour's mother is also pregnant, making it difficult for her to earn a consistent income for the time being. Nour's mother knows that it is not an easy life for her daughter.

“Nour is young and I know she carries a heavy responsibility on her shoulders. But if me, Nour, and her sister didn’t work, then we would not have a roof over our heads and food on the table,” says Nour's mother.

Nour is far from the only Syrian refugee child engaged in child labor in Lebanon. In 2018, a joint study showed that child labor affects 1 in 20 Syrian refugee children here. (Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees, 2018) These children are engaged in work that goes beyond their physical, mental, and social development and/or prevents them from going to school and getting an education.

Information and interventions present a new way forward

When Danish Refugee Council discovered Nour's situation, Nour and her family were invited to participate in a number of support and educational activities.

Although Nour would have always preferred to go to school rather than work, she used to think that child labor was normal and acceptable. But after her and her family were informed about children's rights, the risks of child labor, and the importance of education, Nour has changed her mind. Her mother is now also convinced that it should be a priority for Nour to get an education.

“Once I have given birth to my baby, Nour should be allowed to relax more while I take more responsibility for the family. It will be hard, but Nour is too young to pay such a high price,” says Nour's mother.

Through the Danish Refugee Council's intervention, Nour has been encouraged to start school again. She now attends classes in the afternoon, but continues to work the fields every morning. She is hopeful, though, that she’ll soon be able to attend school full-time.

“When my mother is no longer pregnant, I’ll stop working. I'm in second grade now and I will continue to educate myself until I finish university. I would love to become a schoolteacher just like my uncle who used to teach Arabic in Syria,” Nour says.