May 9, 2005
The displacement of Palestinians from Kuwait between 1990 and 1992 was the largest displacement outside the occupations of 1948 and 1967.
Kuwait does not border Palestine, but many Palestinians went to Kuwait to find work following the Nakba. As some of the most highly educated people in the Arab world, Palestinians were a clear asset to underdeveloped Kuwait, which was in need of teachers, laborers, and civil servants. Thus, living in Kuwait was an attractive offer for Palestinians. While it was hard to acquire citizenship, citizenship was not necessary for long-term work and residency. The numbers of Palestinian children were restricted within the Kuwaiti education system, but Palestinians were allowed to open their own schools.
Following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the number of Palestinian residents in Kuwait soared. Unlike the early stages of economic migration, men came accompanied by their families. By 1970, there were an estimated 150,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, and by 1975, the number of Palestinians had reached 200,000.
In 1990, it was estimated that around 350,000–400,000 Palestinians were residing in Kuwait.
The disaster for the Palestinians living in Kuwait came with the Iraqi invasion in August 1990. The Palestinian leadership, alongside King Hussein of Jordan, supported the Iraqis, and even some Palestinian fighters were among those who entered with the occupying forces. Although not all Palestinians in Kuwait supported the occupation, the Kuwaitis saw them as traitors. Some of the Palestinians fighters (from outside) were even controlling roadblocks, making them a direct face of occupation for Kuwaitis.
In 1990, it was estimated that around 350,000–400,000 Palestinians were residing in Kuwait. This is only an estimate, as no official census has been taken of Palestinians since 1975. During the occupation, almost 200,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait (Al-Ghabra 1995, Lesch 1991). In addition to those who fled, 30,000 Palestinian residents who had been outside the country during the summer were unable to return (Lesch 1991).
Kuwait Liberated but Nightmare for Palestinians Continues
Following Kuwait’s liberation, non-Kuwaitis, particularly Palestinians, were subject to many legal restrictions, as well as attacks by authorities and local people (see Lesch 1991). It is impossible to estimate the exact numbers of those killed or detained, but Palestinian sources claimed that around 6,000 were detained (Lesch 1991).
According to Middle East Watch, by July 1991, only about 100,000 Palestinians remained. Of this group, around 70,000 had Jordanian citizenship and another 30,000 were stateless. Stateless means that they may have Egyptian, Syrian, or Lebanese travel documents, but no citizenship or automatic residency rights in these countries, or, of course, Kuwait or occupied Palestine. Of the stateless refugees, the largest numbers were holding Egyptian travel documents and did not have Israeli-issued ID cards, which would allow them to return to Gaza.
Following Kuwait’s liberation, Palestinians were subject to many legal restrictions.
By the end of September 1991, the numbers remaining had fallen still further to around 50,000–80,000. By February 1992, only 30,000–40,000 remained, around half of whom had Egyptian travel documents, many simply unable to return to their families in the Gaza Strip (Shaml). Later in the 1990s, they were under strong pressure to leave, yet no country would accept them.
The Palestinian community had 40-year-old roots in Kuwait, with many of the younger generations born there, knowing no other life. Their desire to return to Palestine and their support of relatives in the occupied territories continued, but in the medium term, they were settled in Kuwait.
However, the Kuwaiti government’s concern over the presence of such a large Palestinian community in their midst did not begin with the Iraqi occupation, but had much earlier origins. Academic Shafeeq Al-Ghabra claims that the crisis began following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the growing realization that the return for Palestinians might not become reality. As a non-UNWRA country, Kuwait was given much less attention as part of a settlement process than UNWRA countries such as Jordan.
The government was afraid of the security implications of the growing strength of the Palestinian resistance in the early 1970s and the events that occurred in Lebanon and Jordan. Finally, Kuwait was in a very different socio-economic position than it had been in the early 1950s, and the demand from Kuwaiti citizens for professional employment rapidly increased to cover jobs traditionally held by Palestinians.
Where Did They Go?
Iraq: Some 2,000 Palestinians fled to Iraq, mostly holders of Egyptian travel documents (Middle East Watch 1991). However, the situation in Iraq is now very different and many of these people will have become displaced yet again (see Iraq).
Jordan: 360,000 Palestinians, including those from Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, fled to Jordan during the upheaval of the 1991 Gulf crisis. The large majority of this group held legal Jordanian papers; their return from the Gulf added another 10 percent to the population (Shaml).Over 300,000 remained in Jordan, but owing to the wartime crisis, as with all these figures, it is difficult to be precise. About 30,000–40,000 who held valid Israeli-issued documents went back to the West Bank, and a very small number were able to immigrate to Canada, Australia, or other countries.
West Bank and Gaza: Only about 30,000–40,000 Palestinians were able to return to the occupied territories—the few who had valid documentation.
Syria and Lebanon: Small numbers of Palestinians displaced from Kuwait fled to Syria and Lebanon, mostly those who already held legal documents to enter.
Conclusion: Permanent Insecurity
The crisis that faced, and continues to face, Palestinians in Kuwait highlights the ongoing displacement of the Palestinian people. A nation without a state, ordinary refugees are not only subject to the difficulties of Israeli restrictions and denial of their rights, but also the wider Arab and international community who do not want to be burdened with the responsibility of the catastrophe that the Israelis have caused. Until they have their own independent state, which allows them to travel freely and to return, Palestinians will always remain among the most vulnerable groups in societies abroad, irrespective of what financial resources or residency security they previously believed that they had.
Al-Aza’r, Khaled, Arab Protection for the Palestinian Refugees: Investigation of Practice and Foundations for Development, (Bethlehem: Badil, 2004) Paper produced for Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights Expert Forum, Cairo, 2004. Published on Badil Web site.
Amnesty International Report: Brand, L. Palestinians in the Arab world, Institution building and the Search for state, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
Ghabra, Shafeeq, Palestinians in Kuwait, (Westview Press: 1997).
Lesch, Ann M. “Palestinians in Kuwait,” Journal of Palestine Studies, issue 80, Volume XX, Number 4, Summer 1991.
Middle East Watch, Nowhere to Go: The Tragedy of the Remaining Palestinian Families in Kuwait, 23 October 1991.
Shaml, Shaml Newsletter (Issue no. 6), Ramallah.
UNWRA Report of the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. A/46/13, 30 June 1991.
External links last accessed January 18, 2005.