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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.


Refugees and refugee camps are held hostage by history, politics and poverty. As half a century rolled by, refugees continued to live in overcrowded camps, whose legal boundaries have not changed since their establishment. One third of the Palestinian population remains in camps because they do not have the means to live independently. Refugees who acquire the financial means relocate outside camps, and those with some means conduct renovations or expand their shelters; however, the majority of refugees are unable to do either and are in urgent need of support .

Table 1: Increase in Refugee Population By Field and Year(June) [see Table 1 at the end of the Report]

  Gaza West Bank Lebanon Jordan S.A.R. Grand Total
1999 (a) 798,444 569,741 370,144 1,512,742 374,521 3,625,592
1994 643,600 504,070 338,290 1,193,539 327,288 3,006,787
1990 496,339 414,298 302,049 929,097 280,731 2,422,514
1980 367,995 324,035 226,554 716,372 209,362 1,844,318
1970 311,814 272,692 175,958 506,038 158,717 1,425,219
1960 255,542 - 136,561 613,743 115,043 1,120,889
1950 198,227 - 127,600 506,200 82,194 914,221
(a) Of the registered population 36.9 percent were aged 15 or under, 53.8 percent were between 16 and 59 years of age, and 9.4 percent were aged 60 or older.

Please note that all figures are from UNRWA's official publications and offices, unless indicated otherwise.

Overcrowding in Palestinian refugee camps is the result of historical, political and socio-economic factors. Refugees and refugee camps are the legacy of the 1948 war. During and consequent to that war, over three-quarters of a million Palestinians were uprooted from hundreds of towns and villages. About a third of the population moved into the refugee camps set up by various voluntary organizations such as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) . In May 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) took over relief operations and since then has been providing educational, health and relief and social services to Palestinian refugees. Half a century later, over three and a half million Palestinians are still registered as refugees with UNRWA and approximately 1,120,000 inhabit camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The political and economic turmoil following the 1967 war had a negative impact on all the inhabitants in the West Bank and Gaza. For three decades, political repression, land confiscation, house demolitions, curfews and high unemployment levels characterized the daily lives of the inhabitants. However, various studies such as that of the Norwegian Studies Institute, FAFO, and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics indicate that poverty levels are generally higher in refugee camps, especially in Gaza. Moreover, refugee camps were prime targets during the Israeli occupation: many camps, such as Dheisheh in Bethlehem and Jabalia in Gaza, were often placed under siege for weeks on end, hindering thousands of workers from reaching their places of work. Similarly, many of the youth were placed under detention and many more lost years of education, as schools and educational institutions were frequently closed down. These factors acted as catalysts in increasing levels of poverty with a ripple effect on overcrowding, in that the vast majority of the inhabitants in camps do not have the means to relocate outside their boundaries.

Most of those employed in refugee camps work as skilled and unskilled seasonal or daily labourers in Israel (mainly in construction) or, in the PNA territories, including Jerusalem. Another segment of the work force runs small enterprises, mechanic and repair shops, retail outlets, etc. There are also many who work in the service sector, primarily as teachers, nurses and cleaners. However, the type of employment depends on the location of the camp. Refugees in Tulkarm camp, for example, work in Natanya, Israel(many in agriculture) because it is close by. In Camp No. 1, on the other hand, which is in Nablus, refugees work in the local institutions of the city, as teachers, clerks, cleaners, etc.

It is difficult to provide a precise figure on unemployment levels. Unofficial figures are usually higher than those estimated by researchers or the local inhabitants. Nevertheless, most studies show that refugee camps have higher rates of unemployment compared to the larger society. After the Palestinian Authority (PA) took over the territories, a small number joined the security forces and worked in various other official institutions and departments. Overall, those employed by the PA represent a small percentage of the camp populations.

Refugees living in camps are not a social class and there is differentiation within and among camps. It is also important to note that camps are not closed communities, rather, relationships extend beyond the legal camp boundaries. There have been many changes in the social relations and cultural lives of refugees as is the case in all societies and communities. Notwithstanding many changes in Palestinian society, generally, refugees have maintained social bonds based on the extended family, the original village and the lineage. One important reason for maintaining these relationships has been the lack of effective institutions to provide the individual with social and economic opportunities and support. Therefore, the family provides an important resource for individual mobility and social security.

The large family size in refugee camps is one of the causes of overcrowding. The average family size according to UNRWA's statistics as of November 1999, is 4.90 for Gaza and 4.56 for the West Bank. The vast majority of the families visited had 6-12 members in total and older women particularly pride themselves in having many children, especially if they are male, a reflection of the patriarchal structure that still dominates society. According to various analysts there is a trend among the younger generation to have fewer children. Although marriage among cousins is no longer the prevalent pattern, many continue to seek partners within the same clan, kin group, or from the same original village or district. The reproduction of the extended family as an important social unit in society has an impact on dwelling arrangements and social relations. Newly-wed young women often end up living with their in-laws, which in some cases creates or compounds the problems of overcrowding. In addition, many young women marry early, because of social and/or economic pressure from the extended family.

Table 2: Registered Refugee Population in the West Bank and Gaza

Year Gaza West Bank Grand Total
1999 798,444 576,160 1,374,604
1994 643,600 405,070 1,048,670
1990 496,339 414,298 910,637
1980 367,995 324,035 692,030
1970 311,814 272,692 584,506
1960 255,542 - 255,542
1950 198,227 - 198,227

Refugee Camps
There are 59 refugee camps within UNRWA's five fields of operation, most of them established following the 1948 war. Ten of these camps were set up consequent to the 1967 war, six in Jordan and four in Syria. Today, many of the camps include refugees (1948) and displaced (1967) and/or displaced-refugees (1948 and 1967). Over time, the shared history of expulsion and of living in camps, fostered a political culture through which camps became symbols of the Palestinian predicament in general.

As a result of the peace agreements that followed the Declaration of Principles on September 13, 1993, these camps fell within different administrative zones, namely: A, B and C: Palestinian Authority control (A); joint Israeli/Palestinian Central Authority control(B); and Israeli control (C). The "Swiss cheese" effect on the population obstructs movement and creates daily problems. The allocation of different travel permits, identity cards, restrictions and/or privileges hinders the movement of the population from one area to another and constrains them in smaller enclaves which are overcrowded. The legal status of refugee camps has been complicated by the zoning arrangements, especially Shu'fat camp near Jerusalem, whose inhabitants are 1948 refugees registered with UNRWA as well as other refugees including inhabitants from the old-city of Jerusalem. Thus refugees fall under various administrative and authority bodies and the ambiguity surrounding their fate and future, discourages them from relocating outside the camps.

The idea of dismantling refugee camps in Palestinian society, or, implementing large-scale plans, has political ramifications. Historically, large-scale projects have been rejected as associated with resettlement plans and consequently were seen as violating UN Resolution 194 (III) calling for the right of return and/or compensation for refugees. Nevertheless, over time, the combined effect of the increase in the population and the miserable conditions in camps, compelled refugees to conduct improvements in their shelters and to fully utilize the 9 square meter area allocated to each registrant.

A quick glance at any refugee camp today will quickly reveal that almost all the camp area has been built up and occupied. Indeed, once there was no longer space to spread out horizontally, people began to build second and third levels, very often contrary to building regulations set by UNRWA and local host governments. Today, improvement in public utilities, such as water and sewerage networks, renovation of shelters, as well as micro-level projects aimed at enhancing the socio-economic and environmental conditions have become a necessity and a general refugee demand.

Table 3: Camp Population and Number of Camps for 1990 and 1999


1990 1999
Camp Population CAMPS Camp Population CAMPS Camp Population
Jordan 222,972 10 274,816 10
Lebanon 154,533 13 204,999 12
S.A.R. 82,407 10 109,315 10
West Bank 110,010 20 153,380 19
Gaza 271,938 8 437,650 8
Total 841,860 61 1,180,160 59

The legal and administrative restrictions are a major cause for overcrowding, compounded by poverty and the inability of refugee families to purchase land or rent outside the boundaries of camps. Higher costs in real estate, unemployment and political repression over the past few decades have been major causes of overcrowding in refugee camps.

The number of camps in the West Bank and Gaza is 27 or almost half the total number of camps Agency-wide. There are 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and 8 in the Gaza Strip. Most of these are overcrowded, suffer from low standards in living conditions, incomplete and inefficient infrastructures and political and social discrimination.

Table 4: Population Figures (UNRWA figures) as of June 1999 (a)

  West Bank Gaza
Registered Refugees (RR) 569,741 798,444
RR as % of total estimated population 30.5 78.2
RR as % of total RRs 15.7 22
Existing Camps 19 8
RR in Camps (RRCs) 153,380 437,650
RRCs as % of RRs 26.9 54.8

(RR: Registered Refugees: RRC: Registered Refugees living in Camps)
(a) for a complete listing of camps in the West Bank and Gaza please refer to Annex 1.

The above figures clearly indicate that Gaza has the highest number of refugees living in camps relative to the total registered population, followed by Lebanon. As for the West Bank, it contains the largest number of camps in the Middle East, while Jordan has the largest number of refugees in any field, although most of them live outside refugee camps. Yet, since the establishment of camps, the land areas allocated to refugee camps have not expanded, while the population in camps increased dramatically. The average area density of the refugee population living in camps in the West Bank and Gaza as a whole, is estimated at 37.35 sq. meters per individual. (Marshy: 18)

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