Gaza Refugees and the Reality of Statelessness

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Recent ACOR-CAORC senior fellow Michael Perez writes below about his recent research on ex-Gaza refugees who are currently living without citizenship in Jordan. Dr. Perez is a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The Gaza camp is unique in Jordan. Located just a few kilometers from the ancient ruins of Jarash, it is home to about 30,000 stateless Palestinians displaced from the Gaza Strip in 1967. Like other Gaza refugees in Jordan, which today total about 150,000, they never acquired Jordanian citizenship. Thus for the last 49 years, they have lived as legal foreign residents with various limits that make everyday life a challenging effort.

Children are seen playing on one of the main streets within Jordan’s Gaza Camp. Photo by Elena Boffetta.

My research set out to understand better the conditions of statelessness ex-Gaza refugees face in their lives. Like other stateless peoples, their lack of citizenship excludes them from some of the most basic opportunities. The ex-Gazans cannot, for example, work in the government, own property, vote, or seek access to government health insurance. While I knew these limits created particular hardships for this community of Palestinians, I wanted to see when they mattered and how they might be overcome. To do so, I looked into the biographies of Palestinians in the camp and at the making of everyday life. What I discovered was surprising both in terms of the ways statelessness limits people’s opportunities and the way they are overcome.

A boy gazes through a chain link fence. Born in Jordan to ex-Gazan parents, he is one of many stateless residents in this camp. Photo by Elena Boffetta.

One interviewee, Ahmed, for example, didn’t know he was stateless until he attempted to attend the university. Throughout his childhood, he attended UNRWA schools like other Palestinians in the camp. He was an excellent student and scored high on his national exams. Indeed, he was the top in his class. Yet when Ahmed applied to universities, he was routinely denied. More importantly, the few schools that admitted him were too expensive to afford. As a non-citizen, he would have to pay the high costs of foreign tuition rates. Contrary to his dreams of pursuing a degree in engineering, Ahmed had to pursue one of the few degree programs at the UNRWA University for Palestinian refugees.

A man repairs shoes in his shop. His industrial sewing machine is seen in the foreground. Photograph by Elena Boffetta.

After graduating from the UNRWA University, Ahmed realized that his opportunities were limited. Without a national number, he knew that pursuing a master’s degree or higher would require leaving Jordan. Thus he visited a local organization that helps students seek education in the U.S. and Europe. With time, Ahmed managed to find a few fellowships that could aid his educational goals and, after a year, he was awarded a prestigious grant to complete a master’s degree at a university in the United States. Ahmed was proud of his accomplishment but regretted that he was one of a few lucky students. He knew that for many ex-Gazans, life would be different.

The Gaza Camp fills the valley below this hilltop summit. Photograph by Elena Boffetta.

Ahmed’s story is anything but finished. He still hopes to complete a doctoral degree but understands that such opportunities in Jordan are, for him, nonexistent. His income won’t allow him to cover the costs of foreign tuition rates and so he hopes to find another scholarship. In the future, he also worries about his family. As an ex-Gazan, his children will be stateless like him and have to work through the same barriers he did. Nonetheless, Ahmed’s story highlights the ways some ex-Gazans creatively address the problem of statelessness. With differing degrees of success and ingenuity, ex-Gazans routinely struggle to find ways around the barriers they face as non-citizens. For some, that means registering homes in the names of nationals. For others, it means seeking employment abroad. But what these efforts all reveal is that everyday life for ex-Gazans is anything but secure. It is a willful and conscious effort to refuse the insecurities of non-national status.

Written By Michael Perez

Michael Perez earned his Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology (2011) and his M.A. in Anthropology (2005) from Michigan State University.  He received his B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy (2000) from the University of Florida. In the fall of 2016 received an ACOR-CAORC Senior Fellowship to work on his research project, “Surviving Statelessness: Gaza Refugees and the Politics of Living in Jordan”. This project is focused on the community of Gaza refugees and their descendants in Jordan. Displaced since 1967, this particular Palestinian refugee community in Jordan struggles to overcome the limitations created by their statelessness.

 

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