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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

 

Jordan: Palestinian Refugees Feel Neglected

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From Palestine Return Center

Ashraf, a schoolteacher, loves to play football. Every day, he walks through the dusty alleyways of the Baqaa refugee camp, some 30km west of the capital, to join friends and relatives on the outskirts of the camp to play and chat.

Space is scarce within the compound, and football fields have recently had to make way for commercial centres and schools. Now, Ashraf must walk for half an hour to reach the playground on the camp’s northern rim. “By the time I get there, I’m already tired,” he said. “But we need to entertain ourselves to forget our dire situation.” According to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there are some 150,000 refugees currently living in the Baqaa camp, which represents the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in the region. While official figures put the total number of Palestinian refugees in Jordan at 1.5 million, unofficial estimates put the number closer to 3.5 million. Statistics, meanwhile, indicate that more than 60 percent of refugees live on the equivalent of US $150 a month or less, putting them below the poverty line.

Under the prevailing system, there are two types of Palestinian refugee resident in the country. The first type – which makes up the majority of refugees – were granted Jordanian nationality, allowing them to work in the public sector, join professional associations, receive medical care at public hospitals and study in government-run schools.

The second kind – whose numbers do not exceed 50,000, according to UN figures – are those with temporary passports. These generally arrived in Jordan from the West Bank and Gaza following the 1967 Arab-Israel war. They are not permitted to work in the public sector or seek treatment in public hospitals.

Ashraf, meanwhile, along with other camp residents, believes that the world has forgotten him. “Services provided to us have been shrinking,” he said. “People are concerned they might be left on their own in the not-so-distant future.” As a result of declining services, many camp residents have moved away to the big cities, such as Amman, Zarqa and Irbid. Ashraf went on to suggest that the UN was “neglecting them on purpose.”

Last month, community leaders from the kingdom's 14 refugee camps sent a letter to the UN and donor countries, pointing out that living conditions within the camps had deteriorated sharply. “Health services have been reduced to a minimum,” read the letter, which went on to note that educational institutions suffered from lack of maintenance, classrooms were overcrowded, food rationing programmes had been cancelled and waste collection services reduced. Signatories to the letter went on to warn of “an eminent humanitarian disaster” if the agency continued to cut camp services.

Some camp residents also blame Amman for what they see as neglect. “We know that Jordan isn’t our home, but that doesn’t mean we have to live a miserable life,” said Ashraf, who went on to accuse the government of “turning a blind eye” to the plight of the refugees. Government officials, however, counter this by saying they have done more than their fair share to help refugees integrate into society. “We’ve built streets and set up necessary infrastructure, from water to electricity and sewage networks,” said one official from the foreign ministry’s Department of Palestinian Affairs. “Now it’s up to the UNRWA to do its job.”

But, according to UNRWA spokesman Mattar Saqer, the agency’s abilities are entirely dictated by the funding it receives. “We’ve outlined a long-term strategy to tackle the most pressing issues, but we were forced to scale down our projects due to dismal donations,” said Saqer.

The refugees’ precarious existence is evident in the streets of the Soof camp, 50km north of Amman, with frail houses and narrow, unpaved streets reflecting decades of deprivation. UNRWA-run schools and clinics are overcrowded, the streets are piled with garbage and the camp’s limited infrastructure faces an uncertain future. “They threw us in this camp and forgot all about us,” said 75-year-old widow Zaeela Abu Sari. “When we first arrived, UNRWA provided us with everything including food, water and health care. But services have dwindled while camp residents tripled.”

In the camp clinic, Salman – holding his head in pain – must wait two hours before a doctor can examine him. “If I had money, I would go to a private doctor, because I know they don’t examine us properly here,” said Salman. “This place badly needs more doctors.”

According to Mohammad Akel, a parliamentarian representing the Baqaa camp, the decision to cut services was politically motivated. “It’s apparent that the international community – mostly the US and Europe, the biggest donors – want to slowly abolish the refugee status, in preparation for a forced resettlement in Jordan,” he said. Akel went on to urge international donors to “live up to their promises, and help the Palestinians.”

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