Dozens of Palestinians sift through rubbish tips to survive

Palestinians looking for re-usable materials, especially metals, at the Psagot landfill near Ramallah. (Shabtai Gold/IRIN)

PSAGOT, WEST BANK, 30 September (IRIN) - For some West Bank Palestinians rubbish has become not only a livelihood but the only method of survival they know. Many dozens of Palestinians across the territory, including children, work at landfill sites, trying to earn a meager living.

“This is very hard work here. My hands are all cut up, it smells. But what can I do? There’s no work in Ramallah,” said Muhammad, from al-Bireh, a nearby town.

Aged 43, he has worked for the last 30 years — apart from a stint in jail — in the Psagot landfill site, sifting through the rubbish in search of scrap metal.

Muhammed, like the other 40 or so workers, including 20 children, is not officially employed by anyone, but he sells what he can to dealers he knows.

Another man, Akram, aged 32, drives the tractor which takes the scrap away to the dealers. He, like the others, works at the site from early morning until dusk.

“I was a regular truck driver. But then I lost my job. This was the only work I could find, working with the rubbish,” he told IRIN as he revved his engine to cart away an industrial fan and leftover beams from a building project.

Child labor, illiteracy

Two children, happy with their luck, found the fan, which came on a newly arrived dump truck, and dragged it over to Akram.

“None of the children here can write. They can’t read. They never spent any time at school,” said Muhammad.

Shadi, who first claimed he was 16 and then said he was 12, became enraged at Muhammad’s accusation.

“I can write,” he screamed, and began to sketch his name, in Arabic, in the sand. However, it soon became clear this was the only word he knew and he could not recognize individual characters. The other children did not even try.

When asked why he did not attend school, Shadi said: “My father is sick. I have a big family and someone needs to support them. I left school after one year to work here.”

Legal issues

The Psagot site is named after the nearby Israeli settlement on the outskirts of Ramallah. Mostly, the landfill is used by Israeli trucks bringing in refuse from settlements or towns inside Israel.

“There is much more garbage from Israel than from the Palestinians. Much, much more,” said Muhammad.

Health threats

Vultures glide overhead, waiting to grab whatever the workers do not.

In the summer, the heat bakes the garbage, sending a vile smell through the air, which sticks to the workers. While some have families, others realize their line of work may not help their personal lives.

“I don’t think I will get married,” said Ahmed, aged 20. He said the smell never comes off.

In the winter, the workers fight the cold, rain, wind and frost to carry out their work. This is particularly hard since the metals they collect get very cold. A few live in shacks on the site, as they have nowhere else to go.

Besides the elements, the workers face other dangers.

“The children suffer greatly,” said Ahmed Qunnam, a public health expert and medical doctor, who volunteers with the Palestine Red Crescent Society. “Psychologically speaking, they have no normal social system. Also, they don’t eat right and they don’t develop properly. They work all day, overexerting themselves. And the sites are extremely unhygienic.”

At the Psagot site, for example, the workers found a can of olives. It was immediately opened and devoured, although the expiry date had long passed and the hands used to eat were the same ones used to sift the rubbish.

“This whole thing, it just ruins them for later in life. They are losing their childhood,” said Qunnam. “It is easy for them to get into drugs.”

The workers also face threats from other people’s drug use. While sifting through the rubbish, it is not uncommon to find syringes. “They can get HIV or hepatitis,” Qunnam said.

He thinks the Palestinian Authority (PA) must do more for the children, but said it is hard for the PA to exert control over Area C — where the sites are — which remained under Israeli security control, according to the Oslo accords.

Ibrahim Atieh, from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, said the number of children at the landfills was proportionately much smaller than in neighboring countries. “But, this is a very difficult, painful issue. Who knows what diseases they can get,” he told IRIN.

“There is no PA [Palestinian Authority] program to stop this phenomenon right now, but maybe in the future,” he said.

This item comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All IRIN material may be reposted or reprinted free-of-charge; refer to the copyright page for conditions of use. IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.