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Impending Tragedy for Child Workers of Ahwaz amid Coronavirus


Child labour is a tragedy to those forced into it, and it has also become the norm every day in the streets of Ahwazi cities. People are so used to it that they barely give it much thought, even as children are doing dangerous and heavy work every day with their little hands. The world seems indifferent to them, whilst their world revolves around selling balloons, gum and waxing shoes to help their families survive.

What causes this is rampant poverty. Children in Ahwaz struggle to earn a few pennies that enable them to help their families, who are invariably in dire need. Because of this, they have to drop out of school, can’t play, be educated or get healthy school meals. Many describe this as akin to living in a big prison.

In the searing heat of Ahwaz, there are poor children who have to walk through the streets wearing threadbare clothes and plastic slippers that cause painful blisters on their feet. Desperate for any type of income, they have to keep on walking until someone takes pity on them and buys the few things they have to sell. Meanwhile, a prolonged lack of fresh water in the region, caused primarily by the regime’s rerouting of the river networks that once made Ahwaz a bounteous farming region to water other areas of Iran, has also led to a heavily polluted drinking water supply which further exacerbates the risks of disease.

Amid the rapidly spreading Coronavirus outbreak in Iran, fears are growing that this particularly vulnerable group may be worse affected than any other, unlikely to receive any help. In the region of Ahwaz, in the south and southwest of the country, street children and child labourers already struggling with chronic poverty and susceptibility to disease due to a poor diet and lack of basic sanitation or clean water, have no means to protect themselves against the new COVID 19 Virus. These street children, who live by scavenging for food and anything they can find to sell, are already ignored by the regime, whose callous indifference is unlikely to change with the advent of the new disease in the country; while Iran’s government admitted on Thursday  27 February to 26 deaths from the disease so far, the real numbers are reportedly far higher even than BBC Persian’s recent report of 210 dead. Predictably, the Iranian Ministry of Health has issued no guidelines on preventing the spread of coronavirus among the poorest and most vulnerable groups such as street children and child workers.

Mohammad Saeed, a child rights activist within the Ahwaz region whose real name is withheld for his safety reasons, said that in poor Ahwazi areas where the already desperate conditions have been worsening due to economic hardship and the regime’s customary deliberate negligence, it’s now routine to see groups of malnourished children gathered around rubbish bins or skips searching for food or anything they can retrieve to sell.  He added that many are dressed in filthy ragged clothes, either without shoes or wearing flip-flops that are useless for keeping out the cold and rain.   He recalled a recent encounter with one such group, saying that he noticed they were filthy and worried about their risk of disease. “I asked them how many times will any of you bathe in a week? They mostly said, ‘Maybe once a month’. They use their bare hands to root through the bags of trash, exposing them to severe risk of illness and diseases, including coronavirus; I’ve even seen kids searching through hospital trash without any gloves or access to soap or clean water to wash their hands.”

The political situation in Iran in general and in Ahwaz in particular had a massively negative impact on the rights of children in Ahwaz; we can fairly say that the rights of these children have been effectively obliterated. They are left alone facing dire economic conditions, and are subject to all forms of persecution, violence and crimes.

Ahwaz city, which is the second-largest city in Iran, includes a perimeter comprised of neighbourhoods consisting of an entirely marginalised population, predominantly by Arabs. Almost all people who live on the edge of the large city of Ahwaz are needy and desperate people who live under the poverty line that the Iran state itself has controversially drawn, and done nothing to alleviate. The Ahwazi cities located adjacent to Iraqi borders, such as Muhammarah and Abadan, have deliberately been excluded from national rebuilding and re-development programs by the Iranian state. This, in turn, has resulted in a mass migration of Arab families to Ahwaz city or even outside the province.

The shantytowns’ neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Ahwaz City contain a large percentage of Arab families who were displaced during the 1980’s Iran-Iraq war, and they suffer from a lack of essential health and social welfare services. Families are typically large, with four or five members, and one of the primary issues each family suffers from is a very high level of unemployment despite the fact that the province contains nearly all mineral, and other natural resources to be found in Iran.

It is very hard to find a single Ahwazi family able to provide for its needs. As a consequence, they are experiencing a dire level of hardship, unable to afford the cost of health, education and basic necessities for their children. This has what has repeatedly driven these children to discontinue their education, forced into child labour, joining the black market to help their families or buy toys or clothing for themselves, which are basic necessities not within the reach of Ahwazi parents.

The exact number of children who are working as minors is not declared by the local authorities, and their figures are based on the numbers of children that register in the state-run charity known as Toloe MehrAfrinan. The charity claims that its purpose is to support these vulnerable children, by providing basic education and clothing with small monthly allowances (the equivalent of USD8 per month). However, this tiny amount of money is nowhere near enough for them to stop having to work on the streets or otherwise scavenging to help their families. Currently, with no sign from the state of any willingness to tackle the huge problem of child labour in Ahwaz or to otherwise provide social welfare to their families, the damage will continue to inflict on these children, their families and their society.

This is an urgent issue, particularly affecting Ahwaz and its children. The percentage of Ahwazi child labours is 22.6% of the total child labourers in Iran. The percentage is distributed between Bushehr, 10.4%, Khuzestan, 6.4%, and Hormozgan, 5.8% respectively. According to tallies, 13% of the street children in Iran work for more than 8 hours per day, and 55% of them have parents who suffer diseases or are unemployed. These statistics always focus on the children working in factories, stores, and firms while most of the Ahwazi children are working on the streets and garbage plants, which presumptively means that the actual numbers are far higher.

Again, these children and their families are routinely and systematically deprived of humanitarian aid.

About 520 children were spotted in Khuzestan governorate, 552 in Bushehr governorate and 474 in Hormozgan Governorate, taking and using narcotic drugs, according to reports of local activists from inside the cities in Ahwaz, with hundreds more suspected. A recent study showed that street drug use among children reaches about 5 per cent among male children. This rate among girls is approximately 1 per cent. Studies have shown that approximately 30 per cent of children working on the streets do not attend school.

Children also suffer malnutrition and lack of food, due to extreme poverty, which impacts more than 90 per cent of the people of Ahwaz, and is a cause of many diseases. Children in the streets particularly suffer from the lack of safe drinking water, which impacts health by spreading diseases and affecting personal hygiene when they drink from whatever water sources they can reach. Within Ahwaz, according to reports of activists there, 90 per cent of families depend on untreated river water that is transmitted to homes through old pipes, which is not fit for drinking purposes.

Even the children who work in family workshops lack any legal protection, especially when their fathers are absent. On many occasions, relatives exploit the children working with them, and most such children do not typically receive fees.

However, the economic conditions that compel children to work to help their families, or even to search for livelihood,  the employer’s desire to depend on children, due to the recruitment of young people and the low wages of children in the absence of oversight by civil society, and international institutions concerned with the protection of children, and the absence of the Iranian state and its institutions that have to take care of and protect children, it will be difficult to combat this phenomenon, which poses danger to the future of Ahwazi children.

Compared to the conditions in other countries, we often find the status of child rights in many countries of the world in Europe, the US, and even most countries in the Middle East, such as the Arab Gulf states, where they provided all legal, economic, political and social reasons for children to enjoy their full rights. Children have everything that can help them make a better future and enjoy a childhood in which all amenities, learning, health guarantees and standard of living are ensured. However, children in Ahwaz could barely get a daily meal, which is what causes many of them to spend long hours in garbage looking for sustenance to complete their day.

As noted, the Iranian government has shown little to no interest in remedying the conditions that have led to rampant child labour, and amidst its overall lack of action in responding to the coronavirus outbreak, the danger posed to these children from a rapidly spreading pandemic has grown exponentially. Their rights must be protected, and that cannot occur unless they are provided with the means of resisting this potentially deadly virus. For the very lives of these children, they cannot wait.

By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42



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