The children who rummage through Lebanon’s trash
By Noemí Jabois and Ana María Guzelian
Beirut, Sep 2 (EFE).- As the first rays of sun rise over Beirut, two children and a man with a red tarpaulin in tow descend a dusty path into one of the Lebanese capital’s main landfill sites.
The Bourj Hammoud dumping ground was closed down temporarily last week following the death of a scrap collector who was crushed by a steamroller. During that time, mountains of trash piled up in the city’s streets.
It is Monday, and the site is up and running once more amid orders from Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, to ensure operational security.
The Bourj Hammoud landfill is ringed off by a fence. From the inside, a worker gestures towards the perimeter to forbid someone he has spotted from trying to enter the site. In the distance, truck after truck creep up a path to unload trash from their trailers.
The safety measures are not enough to prevent several minors from entering the site, however. They know a way into the complex, where they search for scrap to sell on for a few dollars. At dawn, they emerge from the vacant lots surrounding the dump.
A VULNERABLE COMMUNITY
Since Lebanon’s grave economic crisis sunk its teeth into the nation in 2019, scrap and junk collectors have become a daily sight in Beirut. It is a dangerous task often carried out by young Syrians.
The roughly 1.5 million refugees who fled across the border to escape the Syrian civil war have felt the sharp end of the economic depression. The United Nations estimates that 90% of this community lives in extreme poverty.
It is in this context that the number of children aged five to 17 who were submitted to child labor doubled between 2019 and 2021, with roughly 5% of Syrian minors in Lebanon sent to work, according to a report by several UN agencies published this year.
Not far from the Bourg Hammoud dump, a nine-year-old boy sifts through a pile of garbage in the gutter while his uncle, 18, waits nearby at the wheel of a small vehicle used to ferry the scraps.
“I have this tuk-tuk, we go around the city in it and we collect things from the garbage from 5am until 9pm,” the older of the two tells Efe. “We collect plastic, bottles, cardboard, and we sell it.”
For 16 hours of work, they can expect to receive between 200,000-400,000 Lebanese pounds, depending on the day. That equates to roughly $6-12 on the informal currency market.
PLASTIC AND GLASS
The pair of scrap collectors are originally from the province of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. They work to help “put food on the table” for their family, who are farmers, they say.
“I went to school until my second year, but I stopped and came to Lebanon. I only learned the alphabet,” the 18-year-old says.
He has been collecting scraps for five years, while his nephew took it up two years ago, when he was just seven, according to his account.
Even in the heart of Beirut, the capital of a nation once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, it is common to see minors rummaging through garbage bins or waiting for residents to bring out their trash in search of something they might be able to sell on.
Just outside a well-known Beirut shopping center, a six-year-old boy originally from Raqqa, in northern Syria, turns up every morning for the “mountain” of bottles and plastic waste dumped by the mall’s outlets.
He tells Efe that he can earn between $3-6 per day.