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.
"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
(Imm Salim, Kalandia, November,
" 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,
"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
(Imm Adel, Jalazon camp, November,
"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
(social worker, camp No. 1, November,
"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,
"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,
"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)
GENERAL APPROACH TO THE FIELD AND
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
- 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
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.
TOTAL REGISTERED CAMP
POPULATION AS OF 30.11.1999 FOR EACH CAMP IN
THE WEST BANK AND GAZA
|Camp no. 1