What Is a Palestinian Refugee Camp?

The United Nations General Assembly voted Tuesday to condemn Israel for its rejection of a U.N. fact-finding mission in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. What is a Palestinian refugee camp?

A camp is a plot of land donated by a host country to house refugees of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and their descendants. The United Nations operates 59 Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. The camps house about one-third of the 3.8 million registered Palestinian refugees.

The U.N. set up the camps as tented areas in the years following the 1948 war. In the 1960s, refugees agreed to allow the U.N. to replace the tents with cinder-block shelters. Today, because of their narrow alleyways and high population density, the camps resemble the poorer neighborhoods of Middle Eastern cities.

The refugees don’t own their individual plots of land, but they do own the shelters and are free to make improvements to them. The U.N. owns and operates the camp’s schools, medical clinics, and other basic facilities.

How does a Palestinian move into a refugee camp? The United Nations Relief and Works Agency maintains no authority over movement into and out of the camp and keeps no waiting list for plots of land. Instead, an incoming refugee must purchase a home from a departing family. But houses rarely come up for sale. Most of the camp’s residents have lived there for generations and have no plans to leave. And the camps remain extremely overcrowded because population growth sometimes exceeds 5 percent per year.

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Explainer thanks Peter Kessler, information officer for UNHCR, and Maher Nasser of UNRWA’s New York liaison office.