Inside the disturbing TikTok trend exploiting child hunger in NW Syria

Inside the TikTok trend exploiting child hunger in NW Syria
10 min read
22 March, 2024

In recent years, a disturbing phenomenon has spread across the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps of northwest Syria, where children beg for sympathy in live TikTok broadcasts in return for small amounts of food.

This is provided to them by the Tiktok account holders, who have themselves turned to the platform in desperation for a way out of the poverty of the displacement camps, which lack the most essentials of life.

The children beg the viewers for virtual gifts in the broadcasts, and the broadcasters attempt to increase their followers and donors.

Children in the camps, especially orphans and those who have lost the family breadwinner have become accustomed to appearing in these broadcasts to obtain a meal, whilst also being a chance to play with their friends. The TikTok users seek to increase their chances of profit through these gatherings.

Skipping school for TikTok

Ayham Al-Hajj Musa (10) sees nothing wrong with being late for school, or skipping it sometimes, to get a meal from what he calls the "live broadcast" tent in their camp, on the outskirts of Idlib city.

"In recent years, a disturbing phenomenon has proliferated across the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps of northwest Syria, where children beg for sympathy in live TikTok broadcasts in return for small amounts of food"

He says he walks a long way each day to get to the tent and waits outside until enough children have gathered. Then they are allowed inside the tent and meals are shared between them, after which the livestream begins with a lengthy explanation by the TikToker about the difficult conditions in the camp.

Ayham's meal usually consists of some bread, canned food, and a small juice carton. Ayham sees it as a hard-earned bounty, which he grasps tightly before running home to share with his mother and siblings.

Ayham's mother Abeer Al Baraka (38) says she can't prevent her son from going to the TikTok tent. Her husband died years ago, and she says she is unable either to secure the bare necessities her children need or to control their behaviour. When she tries to deter Ayham from going to the broadcast tent and tells him he should prioritise his studies, he says he's hungry and the food she makes isn't enough for them.

"I felt like a beggar"

Rawa Al Yassin (12) considered herself lucky when, on her return journey home one day, she stumbled across a broadcast tent which children were crowding. She joined them and was given a meal of rice and chicken. Her family had not been able to afford a meal like that for weeks, she says.

Children gathering outside in a muddy space near some buildings
Children in IDP camps across NW Syria see the live TikTok broadcasts as a way to get a meal and play with their friends [Hadia Al Mansour]

Rawa says she had heard stories about a live broadcast tent from kids in the camp, however, this was the first time she had joined a livestream herself.

The broadcast started after midday, which was after her school day finished. She decided to join it without hesitation to get the food on offer. However, when the broadcaster handed her a piece of chicken, she felt embarrassed, especially when he asked her to pray for the TikTok viewers.

"In the first moment, I felt like a beggar who was getting help after begging for pity. However, the conditions which we are living in are far worse than any feelings".

TikTok has proven much more popular than other social media platforms in the region, as it is seen as the one with the most lucrative potential, especially since its most recent update in March 2022, when the duration of TikTok video clips was doubled from five to ten minutes. This saw a rapid growth in new users, with thousands opening accounts with the goal of livestreaming their activities and profiting off the back of them.

The TikToker who films the livestreams usually prepares in advance, affixing his mobile to an immovable base, and setting out the food rations they have collected close by, as children gather in mounting excitement as they wait for the meals to be distributed.

"In the first moment, I felt like a beggar who was getting help after begging for pity. However, the conditions we are living in are far worse than any feelings"

Followers of the live streams can send digital gifts, as a reward for the content creators. These gifts vary from virtual flowers which are worth a few cents, to virtual lions and universes which are worth as much as $500. Whenever these gifts appear on the screen, the TikToker asks the children to call out phrases they have memorised like "thank you", "I love you" or "may God reward you".

Mohammed al-Iyyani (44) lives in the Deir Hassan camp in northwest Syria, having fled from his home in a village in the Aleppo region.

He resorted to using TikTok to livestream videos showing the miserable conditions of the camp, in exchange for the virtual gifts which could be converted into funds, after he was unable to find another job.

Lack of job opportunities

Iyyani says he searched for a job for a long time to feed his children. However, he struggled to find any work. He has no qualifications, and when he worked as a labourer he was exploited – having to work long hours for hardly any pay.

While scrolling through video clips on YouTube, Iyyani said he learned that with just a mobile phone and an internet connection, you could make money from TikTok – all you needed was a small amount of capital and to set up an account, after which you needed to create appealing content to attract followers.

Live Story

He chose to create content about the situation in the camps and transmit the details of daily life – especially of women and children. He now has over 250,000 TikTok followers.

Iyyani doesn't see this as exploitative; he says it benefits both parties - the children receive food portions in exchange for being filmed on TikTok, and he makes a profit and receives financial support from his followers.

Khadijah Al Babouri (37), who currently lives in an IDP camp in the Afrin area, is resentful of the TikTok broadcasters who she says just gather their relatives and neighbours to receive assistance and food portions, while other children are thrown out and return empty-handed, which is especially cruel when the meals are rich and contain meat and fruits.

She says she is always keen to send her children to collect the food items which might be available. This is especially the case as aid in the camp was reduced more and more until it was completely absent, she says. Her husband died when their city Khan Shaykhun was bombed nearly five years ago, which has only deepened the family's impoverishment.

"A drowning man clutches at straws" is how she describes her family's abject circumstances and need for any assistance, however meagre, even if it is offered in exchange for exploitation, as is the case with the TikTok livestreams.

Long-term impacts of exploitation

Commenting on the phenomenon, which she says has been spreading with no oversight or accountability, psychosocial counsellor Randa Kirwan says what is happening impacts children who don't realise the danger in what they are doing, or how they are being exploited.

She says their dreams become limited to receiving food baskets or even just a meal, which isn't usually even nutritious or enough to relieve their hunger; and "they become preoccupied with trivial things, will hang around with companions who are a bad influence and may start lying, showing aggressive behaviour, stealing, begging and become apathetic."

Randa says children are the group most harmed by the horrors of war; the violence, widespread killing and attacks; and had experienced hunger, homelessness, and disease, before suffering life in plastic tents where both the cold and the heat could be fatal, and it was children who were exposed to the worst forms of exploitation and violence.

"What is happening is having an impact on children who don't realise the danger in what they are doing, or that they are being exploited"

She called on relevant parties to shoulder their responsibility for children. This involved protecting them and their rights, preventing their oppression and exploitation, and securing the basic needs of displaced and needy families, as well as assisting children to find schools and cover their schooling expenses.

Ongoing ramifications of the Syrian war

In a report issued to mark one decade since the Syrian war began, UNICEF stated that a decade of conflict had taken a horrific toll on Syrian children and families, with the price of an average food basket having risen by more than 230 percent, and over half a million children under the age of five suffering from stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition. Additionally, around 2.45 million children in Syria and an additional 750,000 Syrian children in neighbouring countries were out of school, 40 percent of them girls. The above was based on verified data collected between 2011 and 2020.

The report also confirmed that almost 12,000 children had been killed or injured, and over 5,700 children, some as young as seven years old, had been recruited into the fighting.

It also stated that the number of children showing symptoms of psychosocial distress had doubled in 2020, "as continued exposure violence, shock and trauma has had a significant impact on children's mental health, with short and long-term implications".

Live Story

It described the situation in northern Syria as "alarming", with millions of children still displaced, and families having fled violence multiple times in search of safety. They have suffered through another long winter – battling severe weather, including torrential rain and snow – living in tents, shelters and destroyed or unfinished buildings.

From its side, the Syrian Response Coordinators (SRC) team condemned the exploitation of children by various parties and through various activities in northern Syria, to attract donations and support.

They described using children to attract donations as "an uncivilised method", and stressed that children should be in school, not working nor collecting donations, and considered the TikTok livestreams to be violating the rights of children as well as training children to beg.

They added, "Videoclips of children collecting donations are spreading, […] using a method that relies on emotionally blackmailing donors, while these parties ignore that these cases affect the situation of these children, and majorly violate the rights of children who will suffer from these effects later."  

"Worryingly, since the start of Ramadan there has been a noticeable increase in the phenomenon - stemming in part from an increased sympathy and desire to give among TikTok followers who want an avenue to extend their support during the fasting month"

According to the SRC, there are two major problems with the situation: the first is teaching the children words and phrases they can't understand at all as a way to blackmail the viewers and get them to donate. The second issue is that in some cases, other support has been cut off from families, and even orphans, after a child has appeared in TikTok video clips.

The SRC had documented nine cases in which certain civil society organisations had removed their support from families or children after TikTok videoclips were spread showing the family or their children, because of the mistaken belief that the family or child is receiving support from elsewhere – even though the primary beneficiary is the TikToker, and whatever support the child or family receives will be small and intermittent.

The SRC urged all parties to work to halt this phenomenon urgently, especially in the camps, emphasising that while they understood the unbearable reality being suffered by families in the region, the exploitation of children is an unacceptable phenomenon and needs to be clamped down on to prevent it spreading.

Live Story

SRC called on humanitarian organisations in the region to adhere to international children's rights conventions, most notably the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child of 1959.

Worryingly, since the start of Ramadan, there has been a noticeable increase in the phenomenon - stemming in part from an increased sympathy and desire to give among TikTok followers who want an avenue to extend their support during the fasting month. In addition, TikTok content creators are keen to seize the opportunity of increased generosity over Ramadan to boost their following, by creating more content.

Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-AwsatAl-MonitorSyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko