Palestinian Influx Puts Jordan to Test
As Palestinian 'returnees' flood the country, Jordanians wonder why so few outsiders seem to care
AMMAN, JORDAN — IRONICALLY, the first harbinger of Jordan's impending crisis that a visitor here notices is a suggestion of greater affluence - traffic jams in this normally tranquil city.But the newly arrived cars that clog Amman's streets belong to only a fraction of the quarter million Palestinians who have sought refuge here after fleeing, or being forced out of, Kuwait. The rest, largely jobless and running out of money, are beginning to pose what looks like an insoluble problem for King Hussein. (A Palestinian family endures, Page 3.) The flood of Palestinians holding Jordanian passports who have poured into the country since Iraq invaded Kuwait in August last year reached 220,000 by the end of last month, according to government figures. Another 80,000 are expected by November, arriving on charter flights or taking buses across Iraq, as Kuwait's government expels Palestinians en masse in retaliation for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) support of Iraq during the Gulf conflict. The government calls the arrivals "returnees," although two-thirds of the Palestinians lived in Kuwait for 20 years or more. Now they are putting a heavy strain both on Jordan's battered economy and its nascent democracy. And officials are angry that few people beyond the country's borders seem to care. As controversy rages in the United States over Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help settle roughly 300,000 Soviet Jewish immigrants who have arrived in Israel in recent years, little international aid has been offered to Jordan to help find jobs and houses for an equal number of Palestinians. "There have been reassurances and expressions of sympathy" from foreign governments, but little more," complains Crown Prince Hassan, the king's brother. The scale of the problem is daunting: In just over a year, Jordan's population will have risen by nearly 10 percent. And although the sudden surge in numbers is now fueling a consumer boom, that is bound to be short-lived. "Now there's an influx [of money], but this is a one-time passage," points out Palestinian businessman Labib Qamhawi. Where Jordan used to benefit from about $1 billion each year in remittances from Kuwait, "the curve may rise now, but then it will drop sharply and forever." "It's not all doom and gloom in the short term, but in the medium term the problems are massive," agrees a Western diplomat. Already, government studies show, one third of the returnees are living below the poverty line. The authorities' dilemma is how to create jobs for so many people, a large proportion of whom are highly skilled after working in the high-tech Gulf. A study in April found that 83 percent of the returnees were unemployed, and as more pour in, officials say the situation is growing steadily worse. "This is a highly explosive issue," says Prince Hassan. There are far too many newcomers for the jobs available, and when more skilled and experienced returnees do fill the rare openings, local job seekers feel resentful. The unexpected leap in population is squeezing government budgets and services. Food imports are rising, and with them the amount of consumer subsidies the government offers; water is increasingly scarce and subject to rationing in parts of Amman; rents have tripled in many parts of town over the past 12 months; and hospitals are overcrowded. The practical economics of this strain are well illustrated by the school system, particularly since 45 percent of the Palestinians are under 15. The Education Ministry expects to have to provide for an extra 60,000 schoolchildren, creating a need for at least 60 large new schools and some 2,500 extra teachers - as many as graduate in a year normally. That will cost $6 million in annual salaries, to say nothing of the $45 million needed to build the schools themselves, says former Labor Minister Jawad Anani. No one can yet suggest where that money might come from, he says, and the ministry's two-year-old program to phase out double-shift teaching is in tatters. The influx also threatens political trouble in a country where relations between Palestinians and Jordanians have traditionally been prickly, and occasionally bloody. In the "Black September" of 1970, virtual civil war broke out between Hussein's army and Palestinian guerrilla groups, and the latter were expelled from Jordan in 1971. Government officials, Palestinian leaders, and independent observers, however, doubt the tensions will lead to violence, especially as King Hussein has gone out of his way to welcome returning Palestinians. In several highly publicized trips to the airport to greet returnees, the king "sent a message to Jordanians on how they should treat these people, that they are not a threat," says Mr. Anani. Some Palestinian figures suggest that the king is seeking political advantage from the flood of Palestinians. "The king wants to say they are Jordanians," argues one in private, "because there has always been competition between any Jordanian king and any Palestinian leader over these people." The more Palestinians who live under his jurisdiction, runs the argument, the stronger the king is vis-a-vis his traditional rival, PLO leader Yasser Arafat. On the other hand, the Western diplomat points out, "Having more and more Palestinians here makes the argument that 'Jordan is Palestine' more plausible." That argument, used by the Israeli government to justify its rejection of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, is one of King Hussein's worst nightmares. In the meantime, however, Jordanian officials acknowledge they are only beginning to grasp the challenge. But as Prince Hassan ruefully notes, "Band-Aid solutions are not going to take us very far."