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Refugee Assistance


UNRWA’s Role in Housing Reconstruction
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, is currently involved in two major, but very different, housing projects in Palestinian refugee camps.
For more than 50 years UNRWA has been helping to provide housing for Palestinian refugees. In the early days of their flight, UNRWA and other organizations such as the ICRC and the Quakers provided tents that were gradually replaced with more durable shelters in the 1950s. Again in 1967 after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, tents were needed to house fleeing refugees in Jordan and Syria. UNRWA also completely rebuilt refugee camps in Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion and the “camps war” in the mid-1980s.

In Jenin, West Bank, UNRWA is rebuilding homes for 2,000 refugees as a result of the Israeli assault on Jenin in the spring of 2002 that left 400 homes destroyed and dozens damaged, piles of rubble and a dangerous landscape replete with booby-traps, grenades and other unexploded ordinance.

In Neirab camp, near Aleppo, Syria, UNRWA is rehabilitating housing for refugees living in dilapidated army barracks built before World War II. It will take several years to complete the move of 300 families to a nearby vacant site, but UNRWA has been able to carefully design the project and closely involve the refugee community in planning and implementation. In addition to improving the housing of 7,500 refugees directly, it will reduce the population density for others in Neirab from nearly 90 persons per 1000 m2 to 70 per 1000 m2.

Each in its own way is an emergency, one brought on by violent external forces and the other by 55 years of decay and lack of money.

These two projects are in addition to UNRWA’s emergency program in Gaza and West Bank to repair or rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli military action over the past two years and its regular shelter rehabilitation program under which the Agency helps refugees repair or construct their own shelters.

Jenin—Picking up the pieces

In April 2002, as a result of Israeli army incursions into Jenin camp and ensuing fighting with Palestinians in the camp, hundreds of refugee shelters were destroyed, hundreds were damaged along with camp infrastructure, UNRWA installations and other community facilities.

Jenin camp was established in 1953 to house refugees who fled from areas of northern Palestine, including Haifa and Akka (Acre), after the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 and the takeover of their homes and lands by Israelis. It is located north of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The immediate need in 2002 was to provide emergency housing and humanitarian aid to the some 13,000 residents of Jenin. By July 2002, the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates had offered $27 million to UNRWA for the Jenin Camp Rehabilitation Project. This encompasses rebuilding destroyed housing, repairing damaged housing and developing infrastructure and communal facilities.

The project is divided into three phases:
• Preparations for reconstruction (architectural and engineering design for housing and infrastructure and repair of damaged housing and other facilities);
• Rebuilding housing and developing infrastructure; and
• Developing communal facilities.
Phase I is complete and Phase II, at a cost of $16.8 million, is underway. Detailed engineering designs for Phase II are near completion.

Israeli incursions delay rebuilding

Even before the major invasion of Jenin in April 2002, the camp had been invaded seven times in the previous year and a half. By the time Israel forces withdrew from Jenin in late April, more than 50 Palestinian refugees had been killed, hundreds injured and a quarter of the camp destroyed.

The UN Security Council passed resolution 1405 on 19 April 2002 asking for an impartial investigation into evidence of serious human rights violations and breaches of international law, including war crimes in Jenin. However, the investigation was allowed to collapse due to Israeli intransigence and non-cooperation.

Since the events of 2002, Jenin camp has been under curfew for 137 working days out of a possible 459 days meaning 30 per cent of available work time has been lost. The most recent incursion by the Israeli army involving property damage occurred on 14 November 2003.

Although the frequency of curfews and incursions has diminished since March 2003, restrictions on movement in and out of Jenin for Palestinian personnel and vehicles have not been eased. A series of incursions in September and October 2003, brought on-site construction to a halt. Delays in awarding construction contracts have caused considerable frustration within the refugee community.

Physical threats against UNRWA project staff while traveling in UN cars have been frequent as well as searches and long delays at checkpoints for staff and vehicles.
The most serious incident was the death of Project Manager Iain Hook who was shot by Israeli soldiers on 22 November 2002.

Before beginning any reconstruction, the first task was to remove thousands of tons of rubble from the 373-dunum site, and dispose of unexploded ordnance. This was done at a cost of more than $500,000.

In planning the project, UNRWA aimed to reduce crowding in the camp, improve housing standards and provide each housing unit with open outdoor space. Agency staff meet weekly with the community to inform refugees of progress and plans as well as obtain feedback and input into the process. Refugees are also being included in the process of rebuilding homes.

Contracts were signed in September 2003 to install a water and wastewater network, a main waste trunk line, roads and storm water drainage. Work was delayed on most of these projects for weeks because of renewed Israeli incursions into Jenin.

Despite the enforced delays, UNRWA is continuing to plan and design housing and community facilities. The aim is to have all refugees rehoused by September 2004. Tenders have been issued and are now being evaluated for construction of a school, a women’s program center and kindergarten and a community and youth center.

Work on the infrastructure, especially water and sewage lines is underway at a cost of $4 million. Major repairs to 389 refugee shelters and 30 shops at a cost of $2.5 million and minor repairs to 1,723 homes at a cost of $1.2 million are nearly completed. The main re-building project, building 198 homes to house some 1,900 refugees is due for completion in September 2004. Remaining funds will provide the community facilities and assist other refugee families affected by more recent Israeli incursions.

Neirab--Fear of resettlement

Lack of funds has always been a barrier for UNRWA in upgrading Palestinian refugee shelters. Another reason preventing large-scale housing improvements was the fear among refugees and host governments that this would be tantamount to resettling refugees without securing their right of return and compensation as promised by relevant UN resolutions.

In the late 90s, however, both the PLO and host governments have gradually agreed to improvements of refugees’ living conditions without prejudicing their rights. In January 2002, the Arab League Conference of Supervisors of Palestinian Affairs in the Arab Host Countries endorsed the “necessity for UNRWA to continue providing services…until a solution to the refugee issue is found on the basis of Resolution 194 of 1948 and implementation of this resolution”.

It also called on UNRWA “to coordinate with the competent authorities in the Arab host countries to carry out projects relating to the infrastructure in the Palestinian camps in these countries…” thereby further underscoring support of Arab host governments for initiatives such as the project in Neirab camp near Aleppo, Syria that will eventually better the living conditions of some 13,000 Palestinian refugees.

Before embarking on the venture, UNRWA studied the situation from both a socio-economic and technical point of view; commissioned feasibility studies; involved the Government of Syria and consulted the refugees who would be affected. The project involves replacing dilapidated World War II army barracks in Neirab camp which now house 1,300 refugee families, most of whom having been living there for 55 years and moving 300 families to a nearby refugee camp, Ein el Tal, which has 60,000 sq. meters of land available and a population of only about 4,000. Neirab has no unused land for housing.

Although developed in response to the miserable housing conditions in the Neirab barracks, UNRWA has approached the project as an integrated urban development initiative, addressing the health, housing, education and socio-economic needs of the refugee community. New initiatives include training courses to help develop skills for the construction industry, a pilot community banking and housing loan scheme in Ein el Tal and the development of areas in both Neirab and Ein el Tal for stores and workshops. The Agency is also continuing to study, with outside specialists and community involvement, how to implement socio-economic development/livelihood strategies in the two communities.

The families moving to Ein el Tal are among the most disadvantaged of the refugees in the area so the Agency is focusing its development activities among them and through community outreach programs is trying to ensure their smooth integration into the existing community of some 4,000 persons.

While the Syrian government has built a secondary school in Ein el Tal, UNRWA has made plans to expand its existing primary school, community center and clinic in parallel with the arrival of the refugee families from Neirab. The first 28 families will have moved into their new shelters by January 2004.

Consultation and participation

A major aspect of UNRWA’s planning process involved consultation with refugees on the kind of housing they wanted, whether or not they wanted to move to another area, and what kinds of on-going community participation refugees would like.

This resulted in the formation of resident committees in both Neirab and Ein el Tal; setting up of two information centers staffed by community liaison officers; discussions with current residents of Ein el Tal to solicit their views on the process and inform them of the changes to their environment including improved infrastructure (sewers, water, schools, clinics) and visits by residents of the Neirab barracks to Ein el Tel to see demonstration housing units and meet its current inhabitants to discuss living conditions and work opportunities in the area.

Part of the rehabilitation is being done on a self-help basis with UNRWA providing the basic housing unit and residents doing the finishing work. This will cut the total cost of construction by some 15 per cent. The Government of Syria and the local administration in the Aleppo area are providing water connections, sewage pipes, electricity grid, roads and a new secondary school.

The community liaison officers surveyed the populations of both camps for construction skills among the refugee population. This is enabling contractors building the infrastructure networks and housing units to use local workers and also assess how refugees can participate in the completion of their units.

Phased approach to rehabilitation and development

In brief, the project has two phases:
• New housing and infrastructure development in Ein el Tal followed by the gradual move of residents from Neirab to the smaller camp (5,500 beneficiaries). Time frame: September 2002 to early 2006
• Rehabilitation/development of housing and communal services in Neirab (7,500 beneficiaries). Time frame: 4-6 years Partly overlapping with the first phase)

The project will include proper urban planning for both camps, replacement of the Neirab barracks by two- and three-storey housing; and support for sustainable livelihoods in both camps.

Jenin Camp Statistics

Camp established 1953
Camp area 373 dunums
Population (3 April 2002) 13,929 registered refugees (3,048 families)
Origin of refugees Northern Palestine, including Akka and Haifa
General curfew imposed 3 April 2002
Curfew lifted 18 April 2002
Other curfews 137 days since April 2002
Buildings destroyed 30 percent of the camp
Infrastructure destroyed/damaged water, sewage, electrical networks
Refugee homes destroyed (800), damaged (1,700)
UNRWA installations damaged health center, school, sanitation office, vehicles
Homeless 800 families
Rehabilitation cost USD 26.7 million
Donor UAE Red Crescent
Estimated completion date September 2004

Financing the project

The complete Neirab-Ein el Tel project is based on a Swiss-funded feasibility study. So far Switzerland has contributed nearly $300,000 to the project and recently announced it plans to invest a further $700,000 towards the Ein el Tal phase from 2004-06.

The United States has contributed $1 million and Canada recently pledged the equivalent of US$ 5 million. This gives UNRWA enough to complete Phase I of the project and the Agency is now looking for $12.8 million to fund Phase II, the rehabilitation of housing in Neirab camp.

The Syrian Government and the Aleppo governorate have played an important role in building infrastructure in Ein el Tel and providing land valued at $3.3 million. Aleppo extended the main municipal sewerage network to the camp entrance at a cost of almost $700,000 and is upgrading the water pumping station and assisting with building untility networks within the camp. A new government secondary school has been constructed in Ein el Tel.

Progress to date

Most of the 28 homes in Ein el Tel and related infrastructure funded by the United States have been completed and refugees have begun to move from Neirab.

Two brothers, Amer and Mahmoud Bach, and their families are among the first to move. Currently Amer, his wife Khaldieh and their four children live in one room in Neirab, part of a shelter without ventilation that they share with four other families.

“There are 25 people living here,” says Amer (34) a seasonal worker who was born and raised in Neirab. In his family’s room there is a refrigerator and mattresses stacked against the wall to quickly convert the room from a living and dining room to a bedroom.

Amer’s mother Subhieh who came to Neirab in 1948 is excited about the move to a 3-room house in Eil el-Tal. “I’m happy but I will miss them,” she says. Subhieh has lived in and given birth to five children in the same shelter that Amer is now leaving.

Her son Mahmoud will also be moving with his wife and two children to a house next to Amer’s. Mahmoud and his wife recently lost a six-month-old son to a lung disease partly brought on by the cold and dampness of their Neirab shelter where cloth pressed into a gaping hole in the wall served to block the worst drafts.

Like other families relocating to Ein el-Tal, the two brothers did all of the internal finishing and installation of light and plumbing fixtures themselves or had friends and neighbors help them.

“It’s very nice and big compared with the shelter in Neirab,” says Amer. His wife Khaldieh agrees saying she will feel some independence with her family living in three rooms rather than crowded into a tiny space in Neirab with 25 other family members. “I will miss having everyone under the same roof but the private space will be good for the children.”

Where did the refugees come from?

The refugees living in Neirab and Ein el Tal fled northern Palestine in 1948 mainly from the cities of Akka, Haifa, Safad and the surrounding area. Many went on foot to the Lebanese border, then boarded trains for unknown destinations in Syria. Some disembarked in Homs, Syria and others went on to Aleppo and the Neirab barracks. Whole lives and careers have been spent in Neirab in hopes that some day their lives would improve.

UNRWA Faces Serious Decline in Donor Contributions for Emergency Programs

At the end of 2003 UNRWA released its Emergency Appeal for 2004, covering all emergency programs in 1967 Occupied Palestine. In total the Agency is requesting USD 193 million for emergency employment, health, education, and housing reconstruction programs for the coming year.

Due to shortfalls in donor contributions, UNRWA has been forced to cut emergency programs as described below from the 2004 Emergency Appeal. The shortfalls in donor contributions is also affecting UNRWA’s regular budget. Despite an increasing beneficiary base, the 2004 budget declined by some 5 percent in real terms to USD 330 million.

As the crisis continues, the ability of the majority of families to sustain themselves has steadily eroded as savings are drawn down, assets sold, and extended families, who may in the past have been relied on to provide assistance, also fall into poverty.

Shortfalls in funding have seen food distributions almost halved in the Gaza Strip, with only five of the eight food rounds required being provided. The West bank Field Office was likewise forced to reduce the volume of food made available to beneficiaries so as to strech existing stocks until the end of the year. The basket of goods now distributed covers only 40% of the nutritional needs of the population, down by a third from the previous appeal.

Foe example, in the Gaza Strip, only $966.000 of the $7.7 milion required for re-housing was available in the first six months of 2003. With these funds, the Agency was able only to purchase tents, blankets and mattresses for those made homeless. The situation improved marginally in the second half of the year with $4.1 million available for rebuilding 167 dewlling units. Funds are required to rebuild 1.109 housing units. In the West Bank, the Agency has had to suspend its shelters repair programme because of the lack of funds.

During 2003, in-kind assistance in the form of shoes and basic school supplies, planned for 70.000 school children, was canclled. In the first half of the year, chas assitance was cut from $3.4 million to $950.000 in the Gaza Strip and of the $3.3 million required in the West Bank, only $2.600 could be alloted.

Of the $9.2 million required for the emergency health programme during 2003, only $1.3 was available, largely covering emergency medical supplies. Funding for hospitalisation in the West Bank was sufficient to assist only those with life threatening conditions in the first six months of the year. During the second semester the Agency had to cancel hospitalisation contracts in three governorates. Repairs to water and sewage lines, severely affected by IDF activity which saw sewage lines destroyed and waste removal services hampered, has been suspended.

In Gaza, no funding was available in the first half of the year to support planned indirect hire activities for the construction of vital infrastructure using labour intensive methods. The situation improved somewhat in the second half of 2003. In the West bank, the planned 1600 active monthly contracts under direct hire was first cut to 1300 and then further decreased to 900. Finally the education component of the response was cut significantly in both fields. The development of self standing learning materials, education kits and after school activities were all suspended.

For complete details of the 2004 Appeal, see the UNRWA website,

 2004 Emergency Appeal Requirements



West Bank
Gaza Strip
Amount USD
Amount USD
Total USD
Food Security
Emergency Employment
Cash/inkind assistance
Operational Support