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A Report on the Psychological Effects of Overcrowding in Refugee Camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Source: Prepared for the Expert and Advisory Services Fund - International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

by Dr. Randa Farah
April 2000

This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the Expert and Advisory Services Fund which is administered by the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada and financially supported by the Canadian International Development Agency in cooperation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Overcrowding is a phenomenon characterizing most of the 59 Palestinian refugee camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spread out in the Agency's five fields of operation, namely: Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Lebanon. Almost half of the refugee camps are in the West Bank (19) and Gaza (8) amounting to 27 camps. In Gaza, 437,650 persons or, 54.81% of refugees registered with the Agency live in camps; while in the West Bank there are 153, 380 persons, approximately 27% of the registered population who inhabit UNRWA-administered camps.

There are three main interrelated causes for overcrowding:

  • The dramatic population increase, while the land area allocated for camps remained fixed;
  • Poverty which hinders people from moving out;
  • Large family sizes living in shelters that generally do not exceed 9 square metres. Official figures indicate that the average family size is 4.5 in the West Bank and Gaza. However, unofficial studies indicate the figure might be higher.

Overcrowding is pervasive in most refugee camps and is manifest in the private and public domains. The private spaces of shelters are too small for inhabitants, while the public centers, such as schools and health clinics, are few and understaffed, relative to the population size and therefore are overcrowded. This situation generates social and psychological problems, including violence and physical abuse, especially directed towards women and children; early marriage and divorce, incest, the marginalization of children, women, youth, the disabled and the elderly. Overcrowding is also responsible for stress disorders, depression and anxiety.

Taking into consideration the political environment that surrounds the refugee question and the empirical constraints which hinder fundamental and macro-level changes, it is possible to deal with the social and psychological problems related to overcrowding by adopting simultaneously the following strategies:

  • To deal with the effects of overcrowding by selecting a specific problem area, identified by the community as resulting from overcrowding, such as the renovation of shelters, violence or early marriage and develop projects to address these issues.
  • To tackle the causes underlying overcrowding, by adopting a developmental approach that will have a long-term impact on the community; mainly by empowering and activating the existing local community-based organizations, through training, material and financial support; as well as poverty alleviation schemes and income-generation projects.
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