Piles of plastic cans and metal scrap have been collected and placed next to Abu Qader’s scales in his scrap shop in Baquba city. A group of young boys - waste collectors – gather around the scales waiting for Abu
These young boys have not only revived Abu Qader’s profession, but have also emerged as the new bread winners for many families struggling with economic difficulties following the death of husbands and fathers. Thirteen year old Maher is one such boy. He supports his mother and three brothers by searching for valuable scraps in the garbage of the rich in affluent suburbs. Two years ago Maher’s father was killed in a suicide attack targeting Baya’ station and Maher left primary school to look for money. “My father was a fisherman and when he died I became the family provider,” he said.
Maher’s condition is not much different from hundreds of other young Iraqis forced to work because of the difficult economic and social conditions. Some work in large markets, some in garages and car repair workshops, and others roam their cities selling paper tissues and cleaning cars in the streets.
Eleven-year old Fuad, who never found the body of his father who was killed by a militia in Dora district a year and a half ago, also sells his collected items to Abu Qader. Fuad said that the little money he gains from his collected goods helps provide for the family. “Haj Abu Qader gives us three thousand dinars [$2.55 USD] for every kilo of aluminum and one thousand dinars [$0.85 USD] for one kilo of nylon bags or empty Pepsi cans. I am not always lucky in bringing back home a good amount of money and sometimes I borrow money from Haj Abu Qader and I pay him back later,” Fuad told Niqash.
Child laborers and young beggars in Iraqi cities are not a new phenomenon but have become a more common occurrence than in the 1980s and 1990s. The deteriorating economic conditions of thousands of families as a result of war, executions and sectarian violence have become a crisis for many. Conflicting statistics on the number of child laborers in Iraq from local NGOs vary from 900,000 to two million. UNICEF says that 11% of Iraqi children (one million) between the ages of 5 of 14 have joined the labour market.
Sami Mahdi al-Azzawi, Director of the Childhood and Motherhood Research Centre at the University of Diyala, says that forced migration as a result of sectarian violence has been a key factor in forcing many children into the labour market across Iraq.
Diyala provincial council does not have sufficient data on the size of child labour market in the province but Ahlam Abbas al-Jibouri, a member of the council, told Niqash that “child labour is growing and the problem needs a quick response from officials, governmental and non-governmental organizations. Diyala province has suffered from deteriorating security conditions during the last two years which has led many children to drop out of school and join the labour market after they lost their fathers.”
For children like Maher and Fuad, the immediate future offers little hope. While authorities move slowly, if at all, to come up with a plan to address the issue, they will continue hunting for bits and bobs that might bring them and their families a penny or two.