Karen Janjua
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
October 23, 2009 - 12:00am

Dante’s conception of a tortuous place invoking hopelessness cannot hold a candle to a place that I visited recently.

The Gaza refugee camp near Jerash is a ramshackle, over 40-year-old “temporary settlement” where 96 per cent of the inhabitants live without the optimism which comes “bundled” with a passport having a national number.

Citizenship is granted to most residents of UNWRA’s nine other official camps in Jordan, but the residents of Gaza camp constitute “a special case”.

During the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Palestinians flooded into Gaza to escape the fighting. Gaza came under Egyptian control but the inhabitants were not granted Egyptian citizenship.

In 1967-68, it was time to move again. As the Gaza Strip was their last place of residence prior to their arrival in Jordan, and “people who lived in Gaza” were not, in political terms, a part of Palestine, this population was eligible for “temporary” resident status.

Now, nearly 43 years later, the combination of political stalemate, time and nature is forcing even average people of goodwill to take notice of the situation in the region’s camps, and at Jordan’s Gaza camp in particular, as a hardship case riddled with increasingly urgent needs.

Gaza camp refugees experience high levels of poverty; most live on less than $1 per person per day. They find it very difficult to pursue means of livelihood outside of the camp. Most of the original refugees probably had few modern, marketable skills and most today make their livelihood as local agricultural labourers. Occasional construction jobs, piecemeal sewing work and handouts provide supplementary income.

None of this is new. A number of recently published articles and studies described the “squalid conditions” at Gaza camp, and the health risks to the camp’s children from their constant exposure to the open sewers of raw effluence found in every street.

Grey water reused for irrigation or discharged into the environment has been implicated in high incidences of diarrhoea and hepatitis. Over-crowding contributes greatly to the problems and although entitled to the same civil rights as any other temporary resident, the unique status and poverty of Gaza camp residents preclude most from being able to leave or to live and work elsewhere.

After almost 50 years, all Palestinian camps in the region are crowded. On the average, the populations of Palestinian refugees housed in camps either tripled or quadrupled by 1999. The average population density in Palestinian camps in the West Bank and Gaza strip is reportedly a little over 37m2 per person.

The Sphere Project’s Handbook, “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response”, dictates that the minimum standards in regard to population density in refugee camps should equate a minimum surface area of no less than 45 m2 per person, including walkways, streets, etc.

Conditions in the Gaza camp, however, are worse for this particular indicator than in Israel, with an average of only 31.25m2 per person, if calculations are undertaken using UNWRA statistics for the “Registered Camp Population”, posted in March 2009. Official figures for that period have put the registered number of residents at around 24,000. If “unofficial numbers” from sources quoted on some websites are used, the inhabitants may number as many as 28,000, in which case, the amount of space per person is reduced to 26.7m2.

Well over a third of the camp is utilised for dwellings, with no walkways and very narrow streets. Much of the rest of the camp area is utilised for public facilities, such as the camp’s two overcrowded schools and administrative buildings.

A place to live, that is adequate shelter and a place to put it on, is a basic right, consistent with the universal human rights like “right to life”, “right to health” and “right to preserve one’s human dignity”.

For human beings fleeing wars and disasters, there are also minimum standards for relief shelter and other basic necessities that are recognised internationally as being the least that should be provided to refugees and displaced people on a temporary basis, under emergency conditions.

Sphere standards for “temporary shelter” are calculated at 3.5 m2 per person. According to the Gaza Camp’s director, the average dwelling is about 95 m2, with two to three families living in each of the camp’s 2,151 houses. That means that camp families have an average of around 8.5 m2 per person, although there would surely be variance between families’ situations.

Beyond having enough space for each family member, the state of the dwelling is also of primary concern when deciding if shelter meets the minimum standards of acceptability.

Gaza camp’s houses are semi-permanent dwellings built between 1968 and 1970 of stacked cinder blocks and cement, with corrugated metal sheets as roofing. In most cases, the metal sheets are not attached but held down on top of the walls with rocks.

The poorest families have been unable to replace the rusted metal sheets over the years, and are now without even one room that is not open to the elements.

According to the camp director, UNWRA responded to the most desperate housing needs in 2006 by repairing 68 dwellings through a European Union/ECHO project. However, more than 1,500 dwellings remained in need of urgent repairs. During the summer of 2009, two different civil society groups in Jordan, neither of which is aligned with any bi- or multilateral donor or government entity, undertook separate efforts to repair an additional 50 houses. With funds which members raised themselves, Inner Wheel, the sister organisation of Rotary International, and American Women of Amman organised projects to replace and repair roofs of vulnerable camp families’ shelters.

The neediest beneficiaries were identified by UNWRA camp staff, based on criteria that considered both the conditions of the families and the physical condition of the houses.

All negotiations, contracting and monitoring were carried out by the club members, and conform pretty well to development industry “best practices” for small reconstruction projects.

While answers to “the Palestinian problem” remain somewhere in the future, answers to the most pressing problems that Palestinians have are now being sought or confronted head on by ordinary civil society in Jordan. Additionally, at least one private-sector company has recently undertaken a long-term training programme to benefit Gaza camp youth.

These are very welcome signs during this period of global economic hardship, particularly as UNWRA has had to cut some basic services and benefits to refugees, including education and maternal and child healthcare because of budget problems.

One hopes that other civil society groups and corporate social responsibility programmes in the country will seek roles in relief and recovery contexts, which are not traditionally part of the community service agenda. Small amounts of funding combined with creativity, thrift and skills really can bring hope - in addition to a warmer, dryer winter - to people who are living in limbo.

The writer is a post-conflict reconstruction expert living in Amman. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times


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