ZAHLEH, Lebanon — Every morning in northeastern Lebanon, hundreds of Syrian children are picked up from refugee settlements, loaded onto trucks and taken to the fields or shops for a day's work that earns $4 or less.
Throughout the day, young boys and girls walk along dirt roads, carrying baskets of fruits and vegetables from the fields to shops. Some are barefoot, while others struggle with the heavy load.
The children, some as young as 7, are cheap labor in Lebanon and Jordan, where they've fled the Syrian civil war. And they are fast becoming primary providers for their families as the adults can't find jobs in exile. They work long hours of manual labor in fields, farms and shops for little pay, according to a U.N. report issued Friday.
More than two million Syrians have fled their country's civil war, now in its third year, seeking shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. At least half of the refugees -- 1.1 million -- are children. Of those, some 75 percent are under the age of 12, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The 65-page report issued Friday by the UNHCR highlighted the plight of the children, who are growing up in fractured families, missing out on education as they turn to manual labor, sometimes under dangerous or exploitative conditions, the report said.
"If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war," said Antonio Guterres, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, during a visit to Lebanon's border town of Arsal. Tens of thousands of Syrians have arrived there in recent weeks alone.
With all those refugees competing for work, the children are attractive laborers.
"There are thousands like me and they prefer to employ boys, not men, because they will do whatever they tell them to, and for less money," said Abu Mussab, a 36-year-old refugee from a village near Syria's war ravaged northern city of Aleppo.
When he arrived in Lebanon nine months ago, Abu Mussab sought shelter in a shanty town near the Syrian border where he used to stay as a migrant worker during harvest season, hoping to get his old job back and provide for his family of six.
He quickly found out he had no chance of getting work. But his oldest son did, and even though he's only 12, Mussab is now the sole provider for his parents and three younger siblings, earning $65 a month working in a car repair shop.
"I had to find a way to survive," said Abu Mussab in an interview at a rented shack built of old billboard ads in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition he is identified only with his nickname for fear of harassment by the authorities.
In Jordan's sprawling Zaatari refugee camp, most of the 680 small shops employ children, the report said. A UNHCR assessment of refugee children living outside of the camp found that in 11 of the country's 12 provinces, nearly every second refugee household surveyed relied partly or entirely on income generated by a child.
More Syrian refugee children are now out of school than enrolled in a formal education system, the agency's research found.
"I would rather see him go to school than to work every day," said Abu Mussab about his son, fighting tears. "But there is no school for Syrians, and I can't teach my son anything so maybe this way, he will learn a skill."
During a recent visit to one of the refugee communities near the Lebanese eastern town of Zahleh, refugees rushed to a group of foreigners, asking them if they have come to offer them work and whether their children start school any time soon.
In the early afternoon, pickup trucks drive up the informal settlements, stopping at each one and dropping off the children. Some of the girls jumped off a truck, running to their makeshift homes and giggling like they've just come from a day at school.
Fatima, a 25-year-old refugee from a village near Aleppo, supports her three children, her elderly parents and her four younger siblings by working the fields for 6,000 Lebanese pounds (4 dollars) a day in the Bekaa. She takes along her 14-year-old mentally challenged cousin to help.
That money helps cover the annual rent of $530 for the shack they live in near Zahleh.
"I am ashamed of taking handouts and when I work, I feel like a slave," Fatima said. "People shout orders at me and I listen to them because if I don't, they will take the tools away and won't take us on the truck the next day."