NEW YORK: Palestinian refugees in the Middle East are facing a rising mental health crisis, with women and children particularly vulnerable, the leading official at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees has warned.
Dr. Akihiro Seita, UNRWA director of health, told a press conference at the UN offices in Geneva on Tuesday that the mental health crisis is one of several challenges facing the agency in the region.
Thousands of Palestinian refugees are vulnerable to mental health issues, especially those who live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and are victims of Israeli strikes on Gaza.
He blamed worsening living conditions for the problem, adding that in 2021 more than 150,000 people had been treated for mental health conditions related to hardship in host countries, as well as in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The following year, the number seen for mental health issues doubled.
Hardship and deteriorating living conditions have contributed to the mental health crisis, Seita said.
“Life has become very difficult, especially in Gaza, Lebanon and parts of Jordan,” he said.
Seita said that women and children are most affected and vulnerable to mental and physical health issues facing Palestinian refugees.
Gender-based violence and the number of children who suffer from mental health problems are on the rise among the refugee population, he said
Seita said there are about 6 million Palestinian refugees living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
UNRWA has provided primary healthcare services to about 8 million refugees, with many visiting healthcare centers on multiple occasions.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are about 14 million Palestinians around the world.
Seita said that UNRWA provides healthcare services in cooperation with international donors, host countries and international aid agencies.
The agency was able to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and deliver services and healthcare to refugees despite severe hardship in the countries in which they were located, he said.
Seita thanked Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees for providing them with COVID-19 vaccines. “I really appreciate it,” he said.
Funding issues also threaten to degrade the level of services UNRWA is providing to refugees, he said.
In countries such as Lebanon, inflation and living expenses have skyrocketed, adding to the cost of providing healthcare for refugees. As a result, UNRWA had to pay more for medicine and hospital treatment, Seita said.
He urged donors and supporters to pledge funds so the agency can continue to provide services to Palestinian refugees in the region.
“We encourage our donors and partners to commit to support UNRWA to be able to provide much-needed primary healthcare services.”
UNRWA was founded in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war which resulted in the establishment of Israel in Palestine in 1948. Up to 800,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and became refugees in neighboring countries.