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Home al-Majdal Gaza Disengagement – Ongoing Displacement (Spring 2005) Where are the tents? It is a camp, isn’t it?

Where are the tents? It is a camp, isn’t it?

Written by  Ron Wilkinson

 Distribution of registered refugee population (UNRWA, June 2004)

Registered Population 
Number of camps
Camp population
Persons not in camps
1,454,239 (82.7%)
 187,614 (47.29%)
Syrian Arab Republic
195,341 (70.77%)
West Bank
493,779 (73.08%)
Gaza Strip 
448,121 (47.75%)
2,879,254 (68.77%)

* Dera’a Camp (1948) and Dera’a emergency camp (post 1967 war) are situated beside each other and since there is very little difference in the living conditions, they are now counted as one camp rather than two as before.
Tents disappeared from Palestinian refugee camps decades ago although, because of house demolitions by the Israeli occupation forces, there are sometimes a few tents in Gaza used as temporary shelter or in other areas because of storms.

Refugee camp has the connotation of being a place where all of the refugees live in temporary, tented accommodation. Some of the Palestine refugee camps have been in existence for more than 55 years.

Palestine refugee camps were established after the 1948 or 1967 wars. Sometimes residents of refugee communities call their home a camp such as Yarmouk which is a residential area of Damascus, Syria. Yarmouk has a population of close to 100,000 persons but is not a camp nor has it ever been a camp. In Jordan there are several large refugee communities which are not camps but have been known as camps by the local populace. They are: Madaba (27,600 persons) and Prince Hassan Quarter of Amman (73,889). In addition, there are several communities in Jordan where the vast majority of the population is Palestine Refugees such as the old city of Aqaba, various places in the Jordan Valley and Khirbet Abu Hammor in the Kerak area.

To reflect today’s reality, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, is changing the nomenclature of refugee camps. There was once a distinction made in UNRWA statistics between “official” and “unofficial” camps. This could give the wrong impression that refugees had differing levels of recognition by the Agency and received differing services.

All registered refugees are eligible and receive services whether they live inside or outside camps and UNRWA installations are often found outside camps as well as inside camps. The one difference is that UNRWA does not look after sanitation in so-called unofficial camps.

Only one-third of the registered refugees live in the 59 refugee camps scattered across the Middle East. The other two-thirds live in cities, town and villages of the host countries and the occupied territories, many near the camps.

UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees. The Agency began operation on 1 May 1950. In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate.

Today, the Agency provides relief and human development assistance in the form of education, health care, social services and emergency aid to refugees in its five fields: Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syrian Arab Republic. Anyone who resided in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who lost both their home and livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war qualifies for UNRWA registration. The descendants of 1948 refugees are also eligible but only refugees living in one of UNRWA’s five fields of operations can receive Agency services. The number of registered refugees has grown from 914,000 in 1950 to higher than 4.2 million today.

Camps are not run by UNRWA which merely provides services. Administration, law and order in the camps are the responsibility of the host country authorities. Camps began mainly as tent cities but have developed into crowded urban ghettoes, a number of which suffer from poverty and poor sanitation.

Land given by host governments
A camp is a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria). The West Bank was part of Jordan so camps in that area were on land given by Jordan and until 1967, UNRWA’s field office for east and west Jordan was in Jerusalem with no separate field office in Amman as there has been since 1967 and the Israeli occupation of West Bank. The land on which camps were set up are either state lands or, in most cases, land leased by the host government from local land owners. This means that the refugees in “official” camps do not own the land on which their shelters were built but they have the right to use the land for a residence. The Gaza Strip was under Egyptian administration from 1948 until 1967 so the camps are on land assigned for refugees by the Egyptian authorities.

UNRWA’s services are available to registered refugees living in camps or not and a number of schools and clinics are located outside camps. While UNRWA supplies sanitation services in official camps, this is provided by the local authorities in “unofficial” camps, refugee communities..

Two-thirds of refugees live outside camps, Agency-wide. Gaza Strip has the highest number of refugees in camps with 52 per cent. The lowest are: Jordan with only 17 percent in camps and almost 83 percent outside camps and West Bank with 73 percent not in camps. In the Syrian Arab Republic, the number outside camps is almost 300 thousand with large concentrations such as Yarmouk of Damascus (see above) and villages such as Ramadan with 2,500 registered refugees. Residents call Ramadan a camp but, like Yarmouk, it is not a camp. Some call them unofficial camps.

In Dera’a, Syria there is one camp but there are 32 locations in the area where refugees live. Until recently there were two camps in Dera'a. One was a post-1967 emergency camp, the other a post-1948 camp but the two camps were side by side and eventually merged.

Only a third in camps
Outsiders expect camps to be full of tents. They think that all registered refugees live in ‘camps’, there is confusion about official and “unofficial camps” and many areas are called camps when they have never been or never will be camps but are groupings or gatherings of registered Palestine refugees. Both of the terms official and unofficial have now been abandoned by UNRWA to avoid confusion. There are registered Palestine refugees and they are all eligible for UNRWA services whether they live in camps or outside camps in the Agency’s five fields of operation (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip). Although most refugee camps are basically slums, some refugees have been able to improve their living standards both in camps and by moving out of camps into better accommodation.

Almost one third (29.6 percent) of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.2 million, live in 58 recognized camps in UNRWA’s area of operations. The remaining 2,978,829 live in the cities and towns of the Middle East, sometimes on the edge of recognized camps and often in the cities of the area.

Some 914,000 Palestinians fled their homes in Palestine in 1948-49. They were housed in refugee camps in Jordan (east and west banks), Lebanon, Gaza Strip, Syria, mainly in tents which were provided by UNRWA, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the American Friend Service Committee (Quakers) and other voluntary groups and gradually replaced with sturdier shelters by UNRWA in the 1950s. After the 1967 war when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 350,000 fled their homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Ten emergency camps were established in Jordan, east of the Jordan River and in Syria to house these refugees some of whom were refugees for a second time. It was the same as 1948, tents again, gradually replaced by cement block houses. The emergency camps established after 1967 are now like any other camp in the region.

Refugees often moved in groups from their original homes in Palestine and lived together in a new setting and they still do live together in many of the refugee camps even some of their neighbourhoods are named after they village or area of origin. The real names of camps are sometimes poorly known such as Jerash in Jordan called locally as Gaza camp because most of the residents fled from Gaza in 1967.

Camps in Lebanon damaged
The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have taken a battering over the years. In the 1980s, the camps near Tyre and Sidon were severely damaged during the 1982 Israel invasion. Earlier, Nabatieh camps had been destroyed in the 1978 Israel incursion into Lebanon. Shatila camp and Sabra neighbourhood in Beirut were also heavily damaged in 1982 and again later during the camps war of the mid-1980s. A recent study by the Fafo Institute of Norway in a survey of almost 4,000 Palestinian refugee households found that even though current living conditions are better than for the first generation of refugees in Lebanon, their conditions are “stagnating and even deteriorating”, especially compared with neighbouring countries.

UNRWA itself flattened one empty refugee camp in West Bank. Nuweimeh Camp, outside Jericho, was abandoned by refugees, mainly after 1967 and the flight to the east bank of the Jordan River and the Israeli occupation of West Bank. Since it was empty, it had become a health hazard. Shelters were falling down and were rife with vermin so the decision was made to bulldoze the camp. This is the only camp in the history of the Palestinian refugee saga where UNRWA destroyed a refugee camp.
Ron Wilkinson

Ron Wilkinson

Ron Wilkinson is a past media consultant with BADIL

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