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
by Dr. Randa Farah
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.
II. THE WEST BANK AND GAZA REFUGEE CAMPS
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]
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,
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
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
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)
|RR as % of
total estimated population
|RR as % of
|RR in Camps
|RRCs as % of
(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)