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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.



"To be honest with you, I know so many who can't wait for their sons to go out to the streets, so they can have some peace at home! Look, Abu Mohammad's family, they live in three rooms, he has five sons and three daughters, two of his sons are married and they live with him together with their families, some of the other sons moved out and are married. The girls are still at home, can you imagine??"

(local community worker in Kalandia camp, November, 1999)

"You see, I live in this section of the shelter (three rooms, one is empty for the husband and his male friends!) with my five children and she (the other wife) lives with her six children). My son, this one, (around eight years) is out of school, he does not want to study. This girl has problems (disabled and around 12 years old) she cannot go to school anyway. I don't know they say there are people who give money to rehabilitate her, but no one cares."

(Imm Salim, Kalandia, November, 1999)

" The camp area from the very beginning is narrow. Here the area is approximately 44 dunums on which around 6000 people, which is less than a meter per individual. The sun does not enter many of the houses in the camp, it is like the camp has one roof. We have approximately 5% of the buildings with four levels and about 35% three levels and two levels around 30% and one floor about 20%. We have a shelter here that holds around 80 people!!! Another family are fifteen people living in 3 by 2 meters. So we have a housing problem, how and where are people going to expand?"

(Camp Services Officer, Camp No. 1, November, 1999)

"We were talking about Abu Muhammad, his shelter is made of two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom and he has five sons and three daughters. Girls and boys sleep together and there are many moral problems that result from this overcrowding and sleeping arrangements, (indirectly referring to incest) of course there will be moral problems."

(social worker, Camp no. 1, November, 1999)

"In this large world and space which God created, why are we the only ones who can't expand our boundaries. We do not want to give up our political rights or right of return, but they can expand the camp boundaries without giving that up! Or why doesn't the PNA create projects, whereby the land is cheaper, or subsidise housing projects so we can improve our lives a little? It is so overcrowded now, we can't breathe, this is a priority? And I want to tell you something else, people are tired of smelling dirty waters that flood all the time, why can't we have a sewerage network like in other camps?"

(Imm Adel, Jalazon camp, November, 1999)

"Our biggest problem which we face as social workers are the regulations set by UNRWA, for example, as soon as a son reaches 18 the family is taken off the Special Hardship Case program. This means that the Agency assumes that the son who turned 18 is capable of immediately finding a job and one that brings in sufficient money to cover the expense of a large family, which is impossible under these conditions. Unemployment is high, jobs are difficult to find and the salary cannot cover the high cost of living."

(social worker, camp No. 1, November, 1999)

"You know, I heard that UNRWA no longer helps the elderly, because their philosophy is now that they do not have long to live and therefore they are not their priority, due to cutbacks...an old lady living not far from me, she died, because the shelter roof fell on her head."

(Imm Yousef, Jabalia, November, 1999)

"Our youth are lost, you know that over 90% of them were imprisoned at some point by the Israelis, do you know the Israelis built a wall around the camp and permit to go in and out was required...this was for several weeks...schools were closed and people could not work. Today, here they are without proper education or jobs?"

(UNRWA employee and a camp resident, Dheisheh, November, 1999)

"They discovered in the walls around my neighbourhood drugs, stuffed inside the holes. During the Intifidah, the drug problem was controlled, but now they are back again, you can see them walking around in the streets totally drugged..they have networks that extend to the old city of Jerusalem."

(a member of the women's organization, Shu'fat camp, November, 1999)

"Do you see these marks on the walls, they are from the dirty water that entered my house during the winter, it was flooded up to here, we all had to move to the other room and could not use this room until the water was drained. My husband is sick and my children are too young to work, I live in miserable conditions. Only this year UNRWA helped me raise the shelter above the street level."

(Imm Yahya, Jabalia, November, 1999)

"You come from the outside full of theories, see how many children there are in the classroom, they are all poor, experienced the Intifada -- most of them-- and they do not want to learn. If we do not use the sticks, they go wild, the problem is too large to deal with only at the school level."

(An UNRWA school headmaster, West Bank, November, 1999)


The camps that were studied in the West Bank and Gaza: Kalandia, Shu'fat, Jalazon, Camp No.1, Jabalia. However, there were others that were visited to get a general idea of population density.

Interviews generally included the following groups of people:

  • UNRWA camp office managers : On the whole, the managers in these offices are refugees from the same camp and have a good grasp of the kinds of problems that emerge, the history of the camp and the services available.
  • Refugee Families . This was important as it gave me the chance to meet individuals within the context of the family, men and women and different age groups. Sitting with people in their homes also showed how overcrowding is 'lived', for example, where visitors are received, the kinds of movement and spaces in the household, particularly who and where a person moves, sleeps, walks, plays, eats and studies. Moreover, it exposes community interactions, mainly, who visits whom and how often.
  • Individuals : Interviewing individuals was key in that it was during these discussions that problems of incest taboo, sexual abuse and violence emerged. In general, when there was more than one individual, discussion often were quite open. Issues dealing with sexuality and sexual abuse, violence against women and/or children were revealed more often in private conversations with individuals.
  • Women : The fact that I am a woman was helpful in allowing open and frank discussions with refugee women regarding their personal histories, sexual abuse, gender relations and social problems, which they would not discuss in public.
  • Teachers, Education Staff and Children : An important site of overcrowding is the UNRWA schools. I met with heads of schools, teachers, cleaning staff and talked and observed students in schools.
  • UNRWA and NGO workers, staff and employees : Interviewing people who worked in these organizations was important. Individuals who worked with UNRWA and local or international NGO's and committees had specific and general information regarding various social and psychological problems in the camps. These include doctors, managers, social workers and members of various local committees. These groups of people provided information on available services, problems they face while working in refugee camps and the kinds of services and programs still required. Often, they provided publications, data and statistics, which were relevant. The individuals and families visited were heterogeneous by socio-economic backgrounds, for example, households who were part of UNRWA's Special Hardship Cases. I also included families who were not eligible for such programs but in some cases were more in need of assistance than those who were. In addition, I visited female-headed households and families with disabled or elderly members.

The interviews conducted included formal and informal discussions, narratives, opinions and I also recorded a few life histories to get a sense how overcrowding and its effects changed over time. The length and the openness of the interview depended on the context and the area discussed. If the subject matter was infrastructure or family size then the discussion was very open and frank. Issues dealing with incest were discussed mainly when the interview was one to one and more open with women than men. Some people were articulate and willing to provide information, others were brief.

About 100 people were interviewed directly. It is important to point out here that this figure includes people I interviewed and spoke with formally or informally, not those who were visited or observed, which is a much higher figure.

The Context: Most of the interviews took place in the context of the camp, mainly in the homes of various families, in schools and in the offices or centers of organizations providing services to refugees.

Some of the interviews took place when most of the family members were gathered, others were with only one member, mainly women, who wanted privacy to discuss things more openly. Others were more formalized, especially with heads of schools, teachers gathered in offices and representatives of organizations providing services. Thus, the subjects interviewed included: Women, Men, Children, Youth, Elderly and the Disabled.


West Bank Gaza
Camp Name Population Camp Name Population
Aqbat Jaber 4,775 Jabalia 97,895
Ain al-Sultan 2,187 Rimal 73,675
Shu'fat 8,955 Nuseirat 59,121
Am'ari 7,396 Deir el-Balah 18,829
Kalandia 8,189 Maghazi 21,311
Dayr Ammar 2,043 Khan Yunis 57,495
Jalazone 8,372 Rafah 85,988
Fawwar 6,419 Bureij 28,628
Arroub 8,470
Dheisheh 9,812
Ayda 3,895
Beit Jibrin 1,727
Far'a 6,312
Camp no. 1 5,847
Askar 12,712
Balata 19,196
Tulkarm 14,862
Nur Shams 7,577
Jenin 13,361
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