The first Arab-Israeli War in 1948 resulted in the mass, forced displacement of approximately 750,000 people throughout the Middle East, including in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Today, over 5 million Palestinian refugees live in the region, where socio-economic issues, health conditions, food security, education and living conditions are all deteriorating, plunging refugees deeper into poverty. This article will discuss poverty in Palestinian refugee camps and what some are doing to alleviate the situation.
The Gaza Strip
There are 1.4 million Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, and according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), the poverty rate increased to 53 percent by the end of 2017, from 38.8 percent in 2011. The poverty line in Palestine is at $4.60 per day to cover the minimum needs of a household, basic health care and education. Nonetheless, 656,000 people live in absolute poverty in Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza with less than $3.60 per day, which only suffices to cover food, clothing and shelter. This drastic increase in the poverty rate is due to several factors including the volatile nature of the economy due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli blockade on land, air and sea since 2007, and the United States’ $300 million budget cut towards the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2018.
Indeed, the drastic economic conditions not only increase food insecurity in Gaza due to the lack of economic access to food but also caused the average unemployment rate to rise above 50 percent in 2018, reaching one of the highest in the world. Moreover, the United States’ decision to cut $300 million from the UNRWA’s annual budget directly impacted education and schools in refugee camps. There is a shortage of staff in Gaza schools as the UNRWA and the Ministry of Education runs over two-thirds of them on double shifts, generating overcrowded schools and so impeding students’ learning and the level of education. The continuing blockade on Gaza affects health care as medical supplies are scarce and deficient, including medication for cancer and immunological diseases. All these factors have led to the impoverishment of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, leaving an estimated 80 percent dependent on international assistance.
There are 552,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria, however, since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, approximately 120,000 PRS have fled to neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan where they have an irregular status. The poverty rate among PRS is approximately 89 percent, including 9 percent living in extreme poverty in Palestinian refugee camps.
The UNRWA stepped up its activities in the nine official camps in Syria, as well as issued a Syria regional crisis emergency appeal in 2018 stating that 95 percent of Palestine refugees in Syria was in “critical need of sustained humanitarian assistance,” and improving PRS’ living conditions.
The legal restrictions that the Lebanese government imposed upon refugees combined with the country not being a signatory of the U.N. Refugee Convention (recognizing the legal obligations and basic rights of refugees), jeopardizes economic, political and social aspects of the lives of Palestinian refugees. Indeed, two-thirds (160,000 people) of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are either poor or extremely poor, which is the highest percentage of people living in poverty in Palestinian refugee camps.
Palestinian refugees face strong discriminatory labor laws; only 2 percent have an official work permit, 75 percent earn below the national minimum wage of $200 per month and 95 percent have no health insurance. Moreover, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not receive full citizenship and so suffer from limited access to public services, including public schools and Lebanon’s public health system. The UNRWA provides schools and medical facilities in the country’s 12 refugee camps, however, these suffer from understaffing and limited funds, and so do not suffice to secure decent education and health care for all Palestinian refugees. Besides, the Syrian conflict caused 30,000 Palestinian refugees to move to Lebanon, adding a new dimension to the existing issue. This reinforces the declining housing conditions in the overcrowded refugee camps which lack basic infrastructures and experience continuous electrical outages.
Jordan hosts the largest amount of Palestinian refugees in the region with over 2 million registered people. Jordan is the only host country that grants full citizenship to Palestinian refugees, integrating them more into society. However, the 158,000 Palestinian refugees coming from the Gaza strip did not receive citizenship, limiting their rights in the country and making them more prone to poverty. In addition, 17,000 Palestinian refugees left Syria and entered Jordan during the Syrian conflict, of which 30 percent were highly vulnerable, according to the UNRWA. These refugees’ irregular or uncertain legal status in Jordan as Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS) exposes them to an insecure environment including difficulties to access government services. UNRWA is in dire need of funding and financial assistance in order to protect the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees living in Jordan.
UNRWA provides cash assistance to over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in one of the largest cash programs in the world, and it has deeply affected poverty levels among Palestinian refugees. Indeed, cash assistance decreased the number of Palestinian refugees living in absolute poverty (under $2 per day) from 90 percent to 74 percent in 2017. However, the lack of financial aid and assistance limits the UNRWA’s activities in refugee camps, and the ongoing state of conflict in the region prevents significant improvements from occurring.
– Andrea Duleux