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United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA): 7 decades of work with Palestine refugees: Past present and future

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Ali Khader


Abstract: UNRWA, established in 1949 by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 302 (IV) is mandated and provides assistance to 5.4 million registered Palestine refugees (PR). UNRWA operates across five fields in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip, helping PRs achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. The Agency's services encompass education, health, relief and social services, protection, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, and is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions. The Agency has contributed to the welfare and human development of four generations of PRs, in 1950, when the Agency began operations it responded to the needs of approximately 750,000 PRs. PRs are defined as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict." Palestine refugee status is passed down through the descendants of males and includes legally adopted children. UNRWA services are available to Palestine refugees registered with the Agency and living in the five fields of operation.  

History and background Before 1948: Palestine, the land of the three monotheistic faiths is where the Palestinian people was born, on which it grew, developed and excelled. The connection of the Palestinian people to Palestine has been deeply rooted and well documented for thousands of years.

Palestine Population: During the twenty century Palestine is a clear example of settler colonialism where the original population was uprooted from their land and homes by extermination or deportation and replaced by settlers coming from different parts of the world and protected by the occupation power. According to the Ottoman register before World War I (WWI) the population of Palestine was 722,143: 683,389 Arabs, mainly Muslims and Christians and 38,754 Jewish (12,332 citizens and 26,377 visitors or illegal European immigrants)[1]. After WWI, British and allied forces occupied Palestine. The British occupation granted the Jewish population the Balfour declaration[2] and facilitated Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. By 1922, the Jewish population had grown to 83,790 people, by 1946 to 583,327 people, nearly one-third of the total population at that time (1,952,920 people).[3]  

1948: The Flight/catastrophe/Nakba

On 29 November 1947, the second session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) approved the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Due to the increasing violence that followed the failure of the partition plan and the end of Mapthe British Mandate in Palestine hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homeland land that was to become Israel on 15 May 1948. By autumn 1948, a humanitarian disaster of immense proportions had taken shape, with more than 750,000 people in flight as refugees. 1948 became the year of independence for Israel and the year of Nakba (Arabic, meaning catastrophe) for the Palestinians. Many (PRs) were left with only what they could carry on their backs; they lost homes, farms, family, their whole livelihoods. The lives of (PRs) were turned upside down, and faced risk of exposure to disease, lack of food and water, life in unfamiliar places and overcrowding. PRs found shelter wherever they could, living in tents, under trees and even in caves. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes and ended up outside of their ancestral homeland, their houses in cities, towns and villages were replaced by tents in camps around the region. Subsequent hostilities saw more Palestinians displaced in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has described their plight as "by far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today." Nowadays, of around 5.4 million PRs registered with UNRWA, 1.5 million live in 58 camps across the five fields.

International assistance to PRs

Immediately following the 1948 displacement, emergency assistance was provided by international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), League of Red Cross Societies and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSF). The UNGA under Resolution 194/1948, established the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), and the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR), to extend aid and relief to PRs, and coordinate efforts of NGOs and other UN bodies.  

On 8 December 1949, the UNGA established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Resolution 302 (IV). The Agency inherited the assets of UNRPR and took over ICRC PRs registration records, beginning field operations on 1 May 1950. The UNGA renewed the UNRWA mandate repeatedly (most recently till 30 June 2020), pending a just and lasting solution to their plight in accordance with applicable international law and UNGA resolutions. The UNGA has affirmed: "the necessity for the continuation of the work" of UNRWA and "the importance of its unimpeded operation and its provision of services for the well-being and human development of the PRs and for the stability of the region." Right of return: Since the beginning of their plight, PRs refuse their settlement outside Palestine, often still holding the keys of their ancestral homes as a symbol of return. Many PRs seek the international community to demand implement of Resolution 194, guaranteeing the right of return, "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss or damage to property" However, it has never been implemented and Israel has refused to allow their repatriation.   Beyond the humanitarian role of UNRWA, the Agency has an important advocacy role in the defense of the right of return for PRs. However, the right of return is not only linked to the presence of UNRWA, UNGA (Resolution 194) and other relevant resolutions. This right is firmly entrenched in the International Human Rights Law, specifically the International Bill of Human Rights (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).[4]  It is precisely because of the Jewish holocaust that the truth about the Palestinian Nakba and the continuing horrific suffering of the Palestinian people have remained invisible to enlightened public opinion in the West. Of course acknowledging what took place in Europe with the Holocaust can never morally justify the uprooting of PRs and the destruction of historical Palestine.[5] 

UNRWA mandate

UNRWA is mandated to d provide relief and works programmes in support of PRs, specifically the original mandate[6] is: (a) to carry out in collaboration with local governments the direct relief and works programs as recommended by the United Nations Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East; and (b) to consult with the interested Near Eastern Governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available. Over time, the Agency's operations have evolved to meet the changing needs and circumstances.    In the absence of a comprehensive solution to the plight of PRs, the UNGA has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate and affirmed "the necessity for the continuation of the work" of UNRWA and "the importance of its unimpeded operation and its provision of services for the well-being and human development of the PRs and for the stability of the region". UNRWA's current mandate runs until 30 June 2020.    

Palestine refugees (PRs): Defined as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict." Descendants of Palestine refugee are passed down through the male heritage and includes legally adopted children. UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees, having supported the welfare and human development of four generations of PRs.   UNRWA services are available to all registered PRs living in the five areas of operation. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 PRs, today there are approximately 5.4 million registered PRs.  

Where do Palestine refugees live?

The estimated number of Palestinians in the world by end of 2015, amounts to 12,365,761 of them 50.3 lives in the historical Palestine (west Bank, Gaza and Israel), 44.2% in Arab countries and 5.5 in other countries[7] . Of them, 5.4 million are considered PRs mostly live surrounding and outside camps among the host population. Only approximately one-third of the PR population, generally the most vulnerable, reside in 58 recognized PR camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian, Gaza and West Bank (table 1). Other countries of PR settlement include Iraq, Egypt and outside the Middle East.[8]

Table 1, Distribution of PR by place of residence by end of 2018

Jordan Lebanon Syria West Bank Gaza Total
Total registered PRs[9] 2.206.736 469.555 551.873 828.328 1.386.455 5.442.947
No. official camps 10 12 9 19 8 58
No. of registered PRs residing in camps 407.983 268.038 192.911 253.245 589.754 1.711.931
% of PRs residing in official camps 18% 51% 31% 25% 39% 33%


Image source from the UNRWA photo archive of about half-a-million still and moving images. The collection is included in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World.”


Barefoot and pushing their belongings in prams and carts Many were left with only what they could carry on their backs driven
From their homes
 between April and August 1948.
PR woman cut off from her home by the “Green Line” 1948 UNRWA school in 1950 Winter in Nahr Al-bared camp in Lebanon 1950

Refugees found shelter wherever they could, living in tents and even in caves


Jordan: In Jordan, more than 2.2 million[10] PRs are registered with UNRWA, the majority of whom possess Jordanian citizenship and are eligible for the same rights as Jordanians. Nevertheless, among them there is an approximate caseload of 158,000 so called "ex-Gazans," PRs who fled Gaza in 1967 and reside in Jordan. Ex-Gazans are not eligible for Jordanian nationality, commonly face restricted access to public services and therefore are often heavily reliant on UNRWA services. The number of Palestine Refugees from Syria (PRS), PRs who fled Syria in the wake of the 2011 conflict recorded with UNRWA in Jordan is 17,529.[11] and are often solely reliant on UNRWA services. The most vulnerable PRs tend to live in and around 10 official Palestine refugee camps, and 3 unofficial refugee camps in Jordan.  


 Approximately 460,000 PRs are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon. Given their condition as stateless, PRs in Lebanon are exposed to many restrictions, including being barred from being employed in around 20 professions and not being eligible for access to public social services. As a result, PRs in Lebanon are often heavily dependent on UNRWA services. An additional 32,274 PRS have been recorded with UNRWA in Lebanon since the starting of the conflict in Syria.[12] There are approximately 3,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who are not registered with UNRWA and have no other form of identity documents. They are barred from practically every form of assistance, and survive thanks to NGOs. There are 12 official camps in addition to many other unofficial PRs' gatherings.   


UNRWA estimates that 438,000 PRs remain in Syria, of the more than 500,000 individuals registered with the Agency prior to the 2011 conflict[13].5 Of those who remain, nearly 95 per cent (over 410,000 individuals), rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their most basic needs. Approximately 254,000 PRs have been displaced at least once within Syria, and 49,700 refugees still reside in hard-to-reach and inaccessible areas. There are nine official PR camps and three unofficial camps in Syria. PRs enjoy access to governmental services, barring citizenship.  


 Around 1.3 million registered PRs live inside and surround eight UNRWA-administered camps in Gaza. As a result of Israeli occupation and the ongoing blockade, PRs in Gaza often suffer severe economic problems. The Agency's operations in Gaza have been severely restricted by the blockade which has also affected the free movement of 1.9 million people isolated and largely locked into a 365Km2 enclave. The psychosocial impact of the repeated hostilities is compounded by socioeconomic hardship. Political uncertainty and an ongoing energy crisis have had significant repercussions on the resilience and coping mechanisms of PRs in Gaza.[14].  .  

West Bank:

 More than 800,000 PRs are registered with UNRWA in West Bank which hosts 19 overcrowded and poorly serviced camps. The ongoing occupation, military checkpoints and closures imposed by Israel puts a huge strain on the West Bank economy, and the population served by UNRWA. The impact of over 50 years of the Israeliongoing occupation of the West Bank, is particularly acute in PR refugee camps where the Israeli Forces conduct regular security operations in PRs camps, in 2017, averaging more than two incursions per day. Many of these operations result in fatalities, live ammunition injuries, excessive use of tear gas, property damage and severe societal stress. In 2017, 51 Palestinians, of whom 14 PRs and 6 minors, were killed and 6,973 were injured.[15]  


 It is estimated that Palestinians whose forbears were displaced in 1948 but remained within the borders of what is now Israel are estimated to number 335,204[16] They have the right to Israeli citizenship but are denied the right to return to their home towns or villages[17].  


 A smaller population of PRs fled to Egypt during the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars. Today, it is estimated that up to 50,000 Palestinians reside in Egypt. However, they are not eligible to Egypt permanent residency, nor register as refugees. There is no UNRWA presence in Egypt[18].  


 UNHCR estimated that of 2006, 34,000 Palestinians lived in Iraq. Today, only 11,544 UNHCR-registered PRs remain. Many PRs living in Iraq have suffered double displacement, first from Palestine and secondly from Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion. Most PRs who have fled have sought refuge in neighboring Syria and Jordan[19].


Palestine refugee's camp[20] A Palestine refugee camp is defined as a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government to accommodate PRs and set up facilities to cater to their needs. This means that the refugees in camps do not 'own' the land on which their shelters were built, but have the right to 'use' the land for a residence. Areas not designated as such and used as a place of residence for PRs are not recognized as official camps. Socioeconomic conditions in the camps are generally poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure.


Since its establishment and within a volatile regional environment, violence and marginalization continued to affect PRs across all five fields of (UNRWA) operation and in line with its mandate . UNRWA has concentrated its efforts on three main programmes: Education  Health and Relief and Social Services. Later other programs have been introduced: Microfinance (MMP) initiated in 1991, and the Infrastructure and Camp Improvement and Protection programme.[21]

Education programme: UNRWA provides basic primary (grades 1-9, in Jordan grade 10) and secondary education (grades 10-12 in Lebanon) to more than 520,000 students, across 711 schools and employs 22,475 staff Agency wide.. In addition, UNRWA operates tertiary education for school graduates. Providing vocational training for 7,688 students through 8 vocational and technical training centres, and teacher training for 1,681 students through 3 educational faculties in Jordan and West Bank.[22] UNRWA is committed to its education strategic objective of quality, inclusive and equitable education[23]. UNRWA schools are competitive and often out-compete government state schools.  

Health Programme: UNRWA contributes towards realizing the right to health for PRs by providing quality and universally accessible primary health care. For 70 years, the Health programme continues to deliver comprehensive primary health care and access to secondary and tertiary health care, to PRs. In 2017, around 3.2 million persons, equivalent to almost 60 per cent of the total registered population accessed UNRWA health services. Health services are mostly delivered through 143 primary health-care facilities, accommodating more than  8.3 million consultations per year, provided by more than 3,300 health staff. Health services in 2017 included antenatal-care for 96,000 pregnancies, child-care and immunization for 358,989 children up to five years, and 267,000 patients with diabetes and/or hypertension. Among the Palestine refugee population, mothers, young children, persons of different age groups and those with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) use Agency services the most. In addition to primary care, UNRWA provides hospital care, principally by contracting for beds or via partial payment of costs for treatment at governmental or non-governmental hospitals. UNRWA also provides hospital care directly at its own facility (a 63-bed general hospital) in Qalqilya, a West Bank town largely populated by refugees[24].   The World Health Organization (WHO), which provides technical supervision and senior staff members to the program since the 1950s, periodically conducts assessments of UNRWA health care efforts. The most recent assessment completed in 2005, found several positive indicators including a high level of staff commitment, cost-effective health care, "an excellent ... large scale reproductive health programme," and "coverage and outcome health indicators ...that compare with those of the high- or middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean."[25]   UNRWA has significantly improved PR health. Vaccine preventable and other common communicable diseases have been almost eradicated. Fertility rates, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates have also declined. Despite these achievements, the Agency's health programme remains continuously challenged by instable political situation, lack of funds and high staff turnover, not to mention the continue grow of the burden of non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cancer[26]. Despite all challenges, UNRWA Health programme is dynamic and flexible, responding to the changing reality of PRs. In 2010, a Family Health Team (FHT) model, a major health reform starting with the introduction of a holistic, patient-centered approach was implemented. The approach includes electronic medical records, appointment systems and capacity building of health staff. Since the FHT model has been implemented in all 144 Agency HCs, 100 doctors have completed the diploma level training in Family Medicine. The integration of mental health and psychosocial support into the Family Health Model is also ongoing.  

Relief & Social Services programme: This programme aims to promote the development and self-reliance of less-advantaged members of the Palestine refugee community, especially women, children, persons with disabilities and the elderly. It provides a range of direct and indirect social protection services with three main directions:[27]

  • Provide social safety net assistance to the most impoverished PRs. Of the 5.4 million PRs UNRWA serves, it is estimated that 1.2 million live in absolute poverty, and 700,000 in abject poverty. Most of whom are unable to meet their most basic food and non-food item needs. As of 2013, UNRWA provided 292,000 PRs with  basic food commodities along with some supplemental cash assistance.


  • Maintain, update and preserve PRs' records. More than 17 million documents, including birth certificates, property deeds and registration documents, some dating back to pre-1948 Palestine, have been scanned and preserved by the Agency. To move away from paper records, UNRWA developed a new centralized and secure, Agency-wide Refugee Registration Information System. This is a system where PRs' records are protected, updated and accessed during the provision of PR services.


  • Empower PRs community. Through partnership with community-based organizations, UNRWA promotes the development and self-reliance of marginalized groups, including women, children, youth, elderly and persons with disabilities.


 To safeguard and advance the rights of PRs under international law, UNRWA adopted a protection policy in 2012, as well as developing tools and standards for service delivery. Progress is measured through internal protection audits carried out every two years. UNRWA persists to respond to key protection issues including an extensive programme on gender-based violence (GBV) and development of a Child Protection Framework.[28] UNRWA is committed to the UN principle that governs the way humanitarian response is carried out: neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence, during both peacetime and in periods of conflict. These foundations are essential for the Agency to effectively protect and serve PRs.[29]

Microfinance programme: Provides sustainable income-generation opportunities on a self-sustaining basis. Since its establishment in 1991, UNRWA has extended 437,310 loans giving access to a total of $493.7Mllion[30].

Infrastructure & Camp Improvement programme: Launched in 2007 to address the deteriorating environments of the camps and shelters, ICIP adopts an integrated, comprehensive, participatory and community-driven improvement of the built environment of PR camps, utilizing urban planning tools.[31]

Emergency Response: Over the past 70 years, UNRWA has always taken action to mitigate the effects of emergencies on the lives of PRs. The operational context in which UNRWA works is challenging, ranging from relative stability in some host countries to more complex environments, including the ongoing armed conflict in Syria. The Agency works in close coordination with UN country teams in host countries to develop contingency and emergency response plans through the prevention, preparedness, response and recovery phases. Normally, these operations are of short duration, though protracted humanitarian emergencies may require a sustained relief effort[32]. UNRWA has launched on 31st January 2019 the new Syrian Regional Crisis Emergency Appeal for a total amount of 276.9 ML USD. Funds raised for by this appeal will provide vital life-saving humanitarian assistance to Palestine refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon who continue to face significant humanitarian and protection needs due to the conflicts in Syria.  

Future of UNRWA

 Since its establishment, UNRWA works is appreciated by the UN, the international community, host countries and by the PR community. The efficiency and effectiveness of its work is widely acknowledged. In 2018, UNRWA was confronted with the largest financial deficit in its history: on 16th January 2018, the US President, Mr. Donald Trump, announced a reduction of 65 million USD of the 125 million USD payment towards the first half of 2018 and on 31st August 2018, he announced that no other funds would be provided to UNRWA. Up to that moment, the US Government was the single largest contributor to UNRWA's budget with almost 370 ML USD per year in 2017.   In January 2018 UNRWA launched the "Dignity Is Priceless" campaign,[33] to mobilize donors and partners and the joint efforts allowed the Agency to nearly close the financial gap by the end of the year and continue its service delivery uninterrupted.    In his speech to the UN General Assembly's fourth committee on 3 November 2018, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl clearly described the current situation and the future of UNRWA and PRs as well as the international responsibility towards them. "In every visit I carry out to our field of operations and those that I carried out this year, I saw the depth of despair, uncertainty and anxiety in the PR community. I was also confronted with the profound and far-reaching expectations of the PRs.  There are new traumas for the refugees, adding to the many layers of suffering that call out for resolution. And we cannot be indifferent to their pain and suffering.  We must ensure that their plight is not forgotten in a world affected by so many other situations of armed conflict and crisis. We must ensure also that the rights of PRs are duly protected and their needs appropriately covered.  


Ali Khader is a former UNRWA staff, worked as a medical doctor in the health department for 30 years, retired in June 2017 from his last post as Health Policy and Planning Officer at UNRWA HQ in Amman. He himself is a Palestine refugee, born in a refugee camp south to Hebron 5 years after the Nakba. His original village (Al-Qubaiba) is located 25 Km south-west to Hebron. Grown up and educated in a refugee camp in UNRWA schools, got his Bachelor degree in Medicine and surgery from Granada university-Spain and his Master degree in Public Health from Jordan University of Science and Technology. The views reflected in this paper are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of UNRWA

[1] Justin McCarthy, The Population of Palestine; Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate. Table 1.4D, McCarthy, supra note 107 p. 10 New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

[2] Balfour Declaration, (November 2, 1917), statement of British support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." It was made in a letter from Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, to Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild (of Tring), a leader of British Jewry:  "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country".

[3] Survey of Palestine, Vol. 1, Table 1, p.141 and Supplement p.10. See also McCarthy Table A3-1, p.65.

[4] Policy Dialogues Series - Lebanese-Palestinian Relations / 06The ongoing UNRWA crisis: Context , dimensions, prospects and responses by Jaber Suleiman August 2018

[5] BADIL: resource centre for Palestinian residency and refugee rights document " 60 years after the Nakba by Dr Nur Masalha

[6] UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV), December 8, 1949, paragraph 7.

[7] [

[8] IRIN newsletter (IRIN.orgnewsletter) Palestine refugees: locations and numbers a 2010 article updated on 16 January 2018


[10] An additional 120,804 "other registered persons" are registered with UNRWA in Jordan

[11] UNRWA (Jordan Field Office) vulnerability assessment, December 2017.

[12] 295579154.1520765184. 

[13] UNRWA Statistical Bulletin Q4, 2017.

[14] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Three Years after the 2014 Gaza Hostilities - Beyond Survival: Challenges to Economic Recovery and Long-Term Development (May 2017).

[15] OCHA , Protection of Civilians Report, 16-29 January 2018. See also data from UNRWA Operations, West Bank

[16] 2010 figure

[17] BADIL: resource centre for Palestinian residency and refugee rights document " 60 years after the Nakba by Dr Nur Masalha

[18] Forced Migration Refugee Studies programme of the American University in Cairo

[19] BADIL: resource centre for Palestinian residency and refugee rights document " 60 years after the Nakba by Dr Nur Masalha


[21] UNRWA Public Information Office, General Fund Appeal, 2008-2009 (Gaza City: UNRWA, ca. 2007), p. 31. Available online ( ).

[22] "UNRWA in Figures," 1 January, 2018.

[23] Report of the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East Programme budget 2018-2019 to the General Assembly Official Records Seventy-second Session Supplement No. 13A 

[24] Annual report of the health department 2017

[25] WHO, "UNRWA Health Programme, Report of a WHO Technical Assessment Mission, 28 February-17 March 2005" (Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, Cairo, 2005), pp. 73-74.

[26] Annual report of the health department 2017

[27] what- we- do/Relief-social-services

[28] what- we- do/protection

[29] 2017 annual operational report page, 49

[30] what- we- do/microfinance

[31] what- we- do/infrastructure-camp-improvement

[32] what- we- do/emergency-response  #DignityIsPriceless




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