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. Others struggle with the heavy loads.
The children, some as young as 7, are cheap labor in Lebanon and Jordan, where they have fled Syria's civil war. And they are fast becoming primary providers for their families, as the adults cannot find jobs in exile. They work long hours of manual labor for little pay, according to a U.N. report issued Friday.
More than 2 million Syrians have fled the civil war, now in its third year, seeking shelter in neighboring nations -- Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. At least half of the refugees, 1.1 million, are children. Of those, some 75 percent are under age 12, the United Nations refugee agency said.
The 65-page U.N. report Friday highlighted the plight of children growing up in fractured families and missing out on education as they resort to manual labor, sometimes under dangerous or exploitative conditions. "If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war," Antonio Guterres, the U.N.'s high commissioner for refugees, said 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, 36, a refugee from a village near Syria's war-ravaged northern city of Aleppo.
When he arrived in Lebanon nine months ago, Mr. Mussab sought shelter in a shanty town near the Syrian border. He quickly found he had no chance of work. But his oldest son did, and even though he's only 12, he is now the sole provider for his parents and three younger siblings, earning $65 a month working in a car repair shop.
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 the camp found that in 11 of the nation'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," Mr. Mussab, fighting tears, said of his son. "But there is no school for Syrians, and I can't teach my son anything, so maybe this way he will learn a skill."
Fatima, 25, a refugee from a village near Aleppo, supports her three children, elderly parents and four younger siblings by working the fields for 6,000 Lebanese pounds (4 dollars) a day in the Bekaa Valley. She takes along her 14-year-old mentally challenged cousin to help.
"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."