THE BLOG

Disaster Unfolding in the World's Forgotten Prison Camp

13/01/2014 12:50 GMT | Updated 15/03/2014 09:59 GMT

What would life be like in a prison camp? We can postulate about dirty, cramped conditions but few of us will ever experience anything remotely resembling such an ordeal.

It is even hard to imagine. The only given is that we would live in hope of being liberated from our nightmare. We would expect to be rescued as quickly as humanly possible.

Well imagine that this prison camp is actually a country and that nobody was coming to save you. Not the Government, not the EU and not the UN or anyone else. You can't leave. You are fenced in. There are no exits. You're stuck there for the foreseeable future, forcibly isolated from the rest of the world with 1.8million other people - a population similar to the size of Northern Ireland.

So do you just settle in and make the best of it?

That's difficult when 700,000 of the inhabitants live in abject poverty, 70% of citizens are refugees and 80% survive solely on humanitarian aid. Few households have more than eight hours of electricity per day and only 15% of the daily energy requirement is met across the entire area. Even before the sole waste water plant closed due to a lack of fuel, nearly 90 million litres of untreated sewage were discharged daily into the adjacent coastline. Now though, the sewers simply spill onto the streets.

To make matters worse, there are crippling food shortages. The territory has 40-45km of coastline but few people are allowed to fish. When they do, their movements are restricted by a domineering fleet of foreign warships. This has contributed to food prices rising by as much as 33% in the past six months; meaning more than half of residents now worry where their next meal will come from.

The lack of medical supplies is particularly perturbing for a population which is becoming rapidly malnourished. Doctors and pharmacies cannot look after everyone who is ill, there are frequent blackouts in hospitals and 50 % of essential medicines have run out completely.

The lack of access to safe drinking water is damning. Approximately 90% of the territory's aquifer water is unsafe for human consumption. Only 15% of the population has daily access to freshwater and many households receive less than 6-8 hours of running water per day. Around 40 % of people receive water only once every three days.

Living conditions border on squalid. Buildings are crumbling to the ground. A third of homes are damaged or destroyed and many people cannot rebuild as the economy is stagnant. There is no money. Even the internal leadership structures struggle to stay afloat; around 25% of civil servants are not paid and external funding from friendly states has dried up. Unemployment is endemic. A third of the working age population do not have jobs. Women and the young are hit hardest. Youth unemployment stands at 47%. It is 51% for women.

By anyone's standards, this is a deplorable humanitarian crisis. It is a deprived and unfair existence. Unfortunately, some people don't imagine it; they live it. It is a real place and those are real events happening to real people. It is not a secret camp tucked away in a corner of Syria or Iraq. It is not behind closed doors in North Korea or hidden away in the depths of Siberia. It is not in a far away place that we've never heard of. Everyone knows about it and everyone has an opinion on it. It was David Cameron who called it 'a prison camp' and UN officials noted that is "quickly becoming uninhabitable."

So where is it? And why not mention it by name?

The terminology, place-names and phrases associated with this unfolding humanitarian tragedy are so highly-charged and politically sensitive that it is better not to mention them at all. Doing so only sparks debate so contentious that the humanitarian element is mostly overlooked.

Mere mention of the issue immediately divides opinion and stokes tribalism. Unhelpful labels are quickly attached. Understand the position of one side and you are a warmongering, right-wing, Conservative Hawk. Be sympathetic to the other and you are radical, left-wing, Socialist dissident.

Discussion is taboo-esque. It will cause offence to someone, no matter how delicately the matter is approached. Mention it in any public forum and there will be endless squabbling about who did what, when they did it, who was wrong and who crossed the line. There will be regurgitated arguments about historical borders and blistering bickering about who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist.

The same old obdurate arguments are routinely trotted out by each side. Rational, reasoned debate is replaced by vituperative conjecture and this only prevents the true extent of the humanitarian crisis from being digested.

It would be wrong to understate the sensitivity of what is a complex, multi-faceted dispute, but this article is not a discussion about 'big-picture' geo-strategy, inter-communal conflict or international law. It is not a blame-assigning exercise. There is no finger-pointing to be done. It is not about religion or politics. The simple fact is that a population is nearing breaking point. A humanitarian crisis is rapidly deteriorating into a catastrophic humanitarian disaster.

It seems absurd to use the term 'forgotten' for such a well-known conflict, but people are living, and dying, in Gaza. And we don't seem to be doing much about it.