Thousands of young refugees are missing out on school to support families left destitute after fleeing the fighting in Syria

child worker in Kilis on the Turkish-Syrian border

Hassan, a 13-year-old from the southern Syrian town of Deraa, at work in Kilis on the Turkish-Syrian border, where many refugee children have had to become breadwinners for their families. Photograph: Murad Sezer /REUTERS

Counting in Arabic, Hamza is carefully stacking freshly-baked flatbreads on the shop counter. It is a Saturday afternoon in the southern Turkish town of Antakya, blisteringly hot. The seven-year-old boy has been working in the small bakery ever since his family of five fled from Aleppo in Syria.

“I really want to go to school, I like school,” he says, now balancing a basket full of firewood. “But my mother won’t enrol me. She says we need the money to eat.”

The oldest of three siblings, Hamza works six days a week, often up to 12 hours a day, to support his family. His mother begs on the street. “My father is hurt and cannot find work here,” he says. “Life in Turkey is very expensive.”

His two child colleagues, brothers from Hama, are 12 and 13. Both have been working in the bakery ever since they came to Turkey more than six months ago. “I would rather go to school,” said 12-year-old Nasir.

The rent for the two rooms they share with 23 family members is 750 Turkish lira (£209) a month. “We need to contribute to the family income,” says Nasir.

According to the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), about half the million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey are children. Whereas more than 60% of children in refugee camps are enrolled in school, 73% of those outside the camps – the overwhelming majority of refugees – do not go to school. A recent Unicef report estimates that one in 10 Syrian refugee children is working – in agriculture, restaurants and shops, as mobile vendors or begging on the street.

“There is a massive increase in child labour here. It didn’t used to be that way. The authorities try to fight against it, but in many cases families have little choice,” said a Turkish human rights activist who wished to remain anonymous.

Almost 900,000 children are estimated to be working in Turkey, around 300,000 of them between the ages of six and 14, according to official figures. The legal working age is 15. Hakan Acar, a children’s rights expert from Kocaeli University, underlined that the real numbers were probably much higher: “Children working on the streets are not included in these statistics, for example – children selling water, tissues or those who are begging.”

As refugees from Syria do not receive work permits in Turkey, underage Syrian workers are not being recorded at all. “It makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse,” warned Acar. “Syrian women and children are probably amongst the most vulnerable groups in Turkey right now.”

In Kilis, a town where there are now more Syrians than local residents, child labour has soared.

Samir, 12, from Aleppo, fled to Turkey two years ago with six siblings, his mother, father and his aunt, all of whom share one small flat. He has not attended school since. In order to support his family he worked at a butcher’s for a year, and he started a job in a shoe shop in the city centre in March. Samir works seven days a week, from 8am until nightfall, earning 35 TL a week – a small fraction of the legal minimum wage.

The employer, a Turk who has owned the shop for 29 years, says that business has been booming since the Syrians came, and that Samir is a diligent worker.

Acar criticises the authorities for failing to tackle child exploitation and punish offenders: “There are too few labour inspectors, no clear procedures for what to do about child labour. Workplaces that employ children are rarely penalised.”

Muhannad al-Nader, a Syrian political activist involved in child protection in Gaziantep, explains that desperation may make refugee families complicit: “Many families might hide the fact that their children are working, because they are afraid that humanitarian organisations might reduce the aid if they find out about it.”

The lack of schools outside of refugee camps in Turkey adds to the problem of increasing child labour among the Syrians, he adds: “Schools are overcrowded. Privately-funded schools are sometimes too expensive. Many children who should continue their education thus end up working.”

While the large majority of child workers from Syria are boys, a growing number of girls can also be found working in shops, private homes and in the fields.

Aisha, 12, from Azaz, and Hatice, 13, from Aleppo, have been in Turkey for two and a half years. Both work in a clothes shop in Kilis. Hatice, who works six days a week for 50 TL, says that she dropped out of school to help her family and because the Syrian school she attended in Turkey was bad.

“In Syria I liked going to school, but here the teachers were not good, it wasn’t nice. My favourite subject was geography, but here, I didn’t learn anything.” All of her three siblings work, including her younger brother, who is nine and works at a barber’s shop.

Ridwan, 12, from Aleppo, sells biscuits from a mobile tray together with his younger brother Mahmud, 8, on the streets of Kilis, earning around 12 TL a day. His feet are covered in bloody blisters caused by ill-fitting sandals. “In Syria, my favourite subject was maths. I would love to be a doctor for children when I grow up.”

Together with his mother, Muntaha, his seven siblings and another family of eight, Ridwan lives in a small depot without hot water. His father was killed in a bombing raid on Aleppo. One corner, separated from the rest of the small, unplastered space by an old blanket, serves as both the kitchen and the bathroom. They have to pay 200 TL in rent.

“Six of my children went to school in Syria,” Muntaha explains. “How is Ridwan ever going to become a doctor? All my children were so good in school in Syria. This situation makes me very sad as a mother.”

Ahmed, 10, whose family fled their Turkoman village six months ago after an Islamic State (Isis) attack, says that he misses going to school. He is the eldest of eight children, and now works at a Syrian restaurant in Gaziantep, often up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for 40 TL. In the three months he has been working, he had one free day, which he spent playing football with his cousins in a nearby park.

“I want to go to school again, and learn,” he says. “I don’t want Bashar [al-Assad], I don’t want Isis, and I don’t want the Free Syrian Army. I don’t care about them. All I want is peace, and my Syria back.”

*Some names have been changed