UNRWA school, Baqa'a. Class sizes have jumped as teacher numbers have shrunk. Photo: Jonathan Gorvett

Its classrooms overflowing, medical centers forced to cut staff, and streets filling with uncollected garbage, the Palestinian refugee camp of Baqa’a – just 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Jordanian capital – is a place of increasing desperation for its 119,000 inhabitants.

“In winter the streets turn to mud and the sewage flows up into the road,” said Dr Younis Al Hawi, a retired professor and Baqa’a resident. “In summer, the garbage rots and the water and power get cut. And now, health services, education, social services are also being slashed.”

As he speaks, the wind blows up dust and discarded rubbish in our faces, as we stand among collapsed market stalls and heaps of garbage on the camp’s pot-holed main street.

“Is this any kind of way for people to live?” he asks.

Life here has always been hard, but recently, conditions have worsened.

The deterioration began last August when US President Donald Trump ordered an end to his country’s $360-million annual contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

This international body has been running key services for Palestinian refugees in camps like this since its creation in 1948.

Although other countries and charities have since plugged some of the gaps left by the US pullout, major holes remain – with major consequences for those living in some of Jordan’s most impoverished communities.

Under pressure

Baqa’a was founded in 1968, as a 1.4 square kilometer site accommodating around 26,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled to Jordan following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and ensuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Now, 51 years later, it is still a 1.4 square kilometer site, but the population has swollen nearly five-fold – although “no one knows how many live here exactly,” says Khalid Arar, a Baqa’a-based lawyer, “as we can’t get any really accurate numbers from either the Jordanian government or UNRWA.”

Jordan is now home to some 2.3 million Palestinian refugees, or around 40% of the global total, according to UNRWA statistics. All up there are about 60 camps spread across the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, plus Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – housing about five million Palestinian refugees.

Back when the Baqa’a started, each family was given a 92-square meter plot to live on. Over time, these blocks evolved from tents to prefabricated shelters, to one-floor ash-block and concrete houses – and now, to three or even four-story buildings, knocked together as cheaply as possible.

Amid cuts to UNRWA, uncollected garbage has piled up in the streets of the Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Jonathan Gorvett

“Where there was one family, there might now be four or five,” said Arar.

The camp’s administration is a mixture of a local committee, part of the Jordanian government’s Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA), and UNRWA, which is responsible for education, health, social services – and collecting the rubbish.

“After the US stopped helping UNRWA,” Arar says, “UNRWA canceled some jobs and stopped recruiting. They also merged four schools in another camp, and here, they cut the number of people working in rubbish collection from 180 to about 60.

“It’s a big, big problem – poor public hygiene means more people are getting sick.”

In Baqa’a’s busy UNRWA-run health center, budget cuts since last August have meant a freeze on recruitment. As a result, staff numbers have fallen from 42 to 30, as nurses, doctors and administrative staff have bowed out.

“Nowadays, we see about 900 patients a day,” one center administrative worker told Asia Times, on condition of anonymity, as UNRWA employees are forbidden from talking to the press without official approval. “It’s a number going up, while staff numbers are going down – it’s a lot of pressure.”

Many of those that remain are now paid by the day, as opposed to being able to depend on a regular salary and stability. “Putting them on short-term, unsalaried contracts saves UNRWA some money, but it also means staff lose all their benefits,” he adds, “making employee conditions much worse, so more people leave and aren’t replaced. It’s a vicious circle.”

The budget for drugs and equipment has also been cut. “We have only basic medicines here nowadays,” said one doctor, also on condition of anonymity. “We have no specialists and there’s a very limited amount we can do for people.”

Similar cuts have hit the camp’s schools, which are also run by UNRWA.

“When I started,” recalls one teacher and member of the local camp committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, “there were about 20-25 teachers in my school. Now, there are eight.”

Class sizes have swollen and the remaining staff are often now on temporary contracts, unemployed during school holidays and not knowing if they will be re-hired afterwards.

“The schools are a key part of everything here,” the teacher added. “We all learned in UNRWA schools, our children and grandchildren, too. Take these away and we lose a whole part of our culture, our history, our identity.” And an education. 

Growing despair

Yet, last August, the US State Department announced that it viewed UNRWA as “irredeemably flawed,” and “unsustainable”, with Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner describing it as “corrupt” and “inefficient” – charges strenuously denied by the agency.

“UNRWA operates in full transparency with all donor countries,” Amjad Obaid, the agency’s acting field public relations officer in Amman, told Asia Times.

Indeed, until recently, the US government itself “has consistently commended UNRWA’s high impact, transparency and accountability… reiterated during the UNRWA Commissioner General’s visit to Washington in November 2017,” he added.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump. Photo: Reuters / Alessandro Bianchi

With its US funding gone, however, UNRWA and the Jordanian government had to move fast to make up the shortfall with help from elsewhere.

“His Majesty King Abdullah led a campaign to re-secure funds and make sure that the impact on UNRWA was minimized,” Jordanian senator and former chief of the DPA Wageeh Azayzeh told Asia Times.

“Some came from the European Union, some from other Arab states. The problem is though, we don’t know how long this situation will last. How can we be sure of funding two, three, or more years into the future?”

The US, meanwhile, has hiked up its financial squeeze on Palestinians elsewhere ahead of announcing its much-awaited plan for the Middle East.

In early May, USAID announced it was slashing funding for Palestinian programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with some 85% of local staff there now threatened with redundancy. 

At the same time, Israel has announced it is cutting the tax revenues it supplies to the Palestinian Authority governing those occupied territories.

“Unfortunately,” said Azayzeh, “with all this going on, we see the Palestinians being pushed into a desperate situation. The result might be instability, perhaps even an explosion,” he said.

Back on the main street in Baqa’a, Al Hawi agreed. “Just look around you,” he said. “You ask about the mood here? Desperate. Really desperate.”

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