Gazans being forced to live in squalid conditions in Rafah, UNRWA warns

On average 5,500 people share one shower, while 888 people share one toilet in displacement shelters

Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid a shortage of supplies in Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip. Reuters
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Gazans are being forced to live in “squalid conditions” in Rafah amid the mass displacement of Palestinians due to Israel’s military operation against Hamas, a deputy chief of UNRWA has warned.

Natalie Boucly said she was struck by the “extent, scale and consequences” of the action during a recent visit to Gaza.

She told the European Humanitarian Forum on Monday: “I have seen people, women in particular, who bear the brunt of the crisis, living in squalid conditions. There is an offensive smell in Rafah, along the sea because there is no sewage system any more.”

UNRWA shelters throughout Gaza are holding an average 30,000 people, she said.

“There’s on average 5,500 people for one shower, 888 people for one toilet,” said Ms Boucly. "How can you live in these conditions? It’s very difficult."

She also spoke about the effect of the UNRWA funding freeze, after many countries withdrew financial support due to allegations that some of its Gaza-based staff had participated in the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on October 7.

She thanked countries that had resumed funding, including Australia, Canada and Sweden, and others that never halted it. But she said there were still 13 that have not yet made a decision on whether to resume.

“The impact of that is $365 million that we are unable to account for,” she said.

“Under the current state of affairs we will be OK doing our operations until the end of April, perhaps beginning of May. But how do you plan? We shouldn’t be placed in this situation today when there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding.”

Her comments came as the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the conference in Brussels that Israel was “using starvation as a weapon of war” and a UN-backed food security assessment warned half of Gazans were experiencing "catastrophic" hunger.

Mr Borrell said Gaza was “now in a state of famine”.

Ted Chaiban, Unicef’s deputy executive director, said children were now dying “a slow painful death” caused by malnutrition and dehydration.

Mr Chaiban, who was also speaking at the European Humanitarian Forum, added: “We know of 23 children in the north of the Gaza Strip, according to reports we have received from hospitals, who have died due to malnutrition and dehydration.

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“And that would be the tip of the iceberg. Those would be the children who actually got to the hospital, [not] the children who have died silently at home or in communities when they didn’t get to the hospital.”

He cited recent figures that suggested 31 per cent of children in northern Gaza were suffering from acute malnourishment, up 15 per cent from January.

In the southern Gaza Strip at Rafah, near the border with Egypt, the figure was 8 per cent, "which is high but manageable and below the threshold level", he added.

“There you have better access to humanitarian assistance and some commercial trucks. That just goes to show it’s something that can be addressed if access is opened up.”

Mr Chaiban described the displacement of the majority of Gaza’s population into Rafah a “deliberate squeezing” of humanitarian space.

He said an immediate ceasefire should be called, which should include the return of all hostages being held by Hamas.

He said an attack on Rafah would have “consequences beyond being manageable”.

“I don’t want to contemplate what it looks like,” he added.

Updated: April 09, 2024, 10:49 AM