Geneva - Horrific scenes are unfolding in UN-run shelters for Palestinian refugees as inhumane conditions prevail in the Gaza Strip, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said in a statement issued Sunday, expressing shock and deep concern over the international community’s possibly deliberate evasion of its duty to protect civilian lives.

Nearly 900,000 out of the more than 1.7 million internally displaced people in Gaza, or nearly 80% of the Strip’s population, live in shelters run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), according to Euro-Med Monitor. About 99 UNRWA facilities, all in the south of the Gaza Valley, are housing displaced Palestinians.

Amid complains of extreme and deliberate negligence on the part of the UN agency’s management, Euro-Med Monitor cited shocking conditions in such facilities, such as severe overcrowding and a growing health crisis among refugees.

Shortly after the Israeli army’s 13 October order to evacuate Gaza City and its surrounding area, UNRWA crews moved their headquarters and staff to the southern part of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian refugees criticised the move as a betrayal of the UN agency’s obligations in its shelter centres located in Gaza City and its surrounding areas, including providing health and relief services to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

The UNRWA administration’s apparent consistency with the forced displacement plans that Israel is still trying to implement in the Gaza Strip violates international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime, Euro-Med Monitor said.

Testimonies received by the Geneva-based organisation confirm substantial shortcomings in UNRWA’s humanitarian support operations, in addition to its withdrawal from the southern Gaza Valley region. Displaced refugees accused the UNRWA administration of abandoning them to inhumane and deteriorating living conditions, making them the target of a severe health crisis due to the water and sanitation infrastructure damage.

Due to their harsh living conditions, the Euro-Med Monitor team has seen a marked increase in a number of infectious diseases and conditions among the displaced refugees, including acute respiratory infections, skin infections, lice, and diarrhea.

A woman named Walaa Saada told the Euro-Med Monitor team that she and her family were displaced from the northern Gaza Strip to a UNRWA-run school in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, amid terrible and catastrophic living conditions. Saada voiced severe dissatisfaction with the total lack of hygiene regulations, the inability to transport waste without carrying a plastic waste container, and the complete disregard for maintaining clean restrooms and other necessary facilities, all of which contribute to the rise of diseases and epidemics.

Bashir Abu Armana, an elderly man who sought refuge in a UNRWA-run school in Deir al-Balah, stated that UNRWA had deserted the refugees, leaving them without even the most basic survival supplies, such as bedding and blankets. According to Abu Armana, there has been a rapid spread of diseases and epidemics among the displaced refugees, and all five of his children have experienced gastrointestinal ailments amid the unsafe accumulation of waste.

With no access to hygiene supplies, assistive devices, or other necessities, the suffering of tens of thousands of displaced people with disabilities, injuries, and illnesses—including children—has intensified greatly.

Teenager Ismail Muhammad, who has been paralysed since birth, said that the lack of any specialised equipment inside the “Khan Yunis Training Centre”, which has been converted into a shelter centre for more than 21,000 displaced people, makes it difficult for him to move around and to fulfill his basic human needs. 

Additional testimonies from Palestinian refugees confirmed that they have not been provided with blankets, meals, or enough drinking water. Over 520 individuals shared bathrooms, waiting in lines of 70-90 people at a time in the shelters. People have had to wait for two hours just to use the restroom.

Refugees also criticised the UNRWA administration for failing to provide hygiene and health supplies in the centres while ignoring the presence of a large number of displaced children, thousands of pregnant women, and more than 2,000 people with disabilities, as well as patients who live with chronic diseases.

UNRWA is responsible for providing health, social, and educational services to about 5.7 million Palestinian refugees distributed in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, in addition to about 1.4 million refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, constituting more than 60 per cent of the region’s total population.

According to Euro-Med Monitor, the UNRWA administration and other similar international organisations bear twice as much responsibility during times of armed conflict for safeguarding displaced civilians at their shelters and meeting their humanitarian needs. If these responsibilities are neglected, it is necessary to conduct an immediate investigation into the actions of these organisations’ senior officials.

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor emphasised that UNRWA is the only UN agency entrusted with helping Palestinian refugees who are currently unable to exercise their inalienable rights, and that its administration must increase all of its efforts in order to fulfill the UN mandate.