Kuwait is the fifth richest country in the world and is able to provide its citizens with unparalleled benefits, including free healthcare, free education at all levels, guaranteed employment and housing grants. In this context, there is a segment of the population deprived of the same rights: the Bidoon, or bidoon jinsiya, meaning in Arabic “without nationality”. According to Amnesty International, more than 100,000 Bidoon are stateless today, despite the warnings issued by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urging Kuwait to guarantee their inclusion and access to state services. Additionally, the government categorises Bidoon as “illegal residents”, despite they lack a connection with any other country different from Kuwait. Their categorisation as illegal and stateless means that the Bidoon face further difficulties to obtain civil documents and to access education and employment opportunities, among other social services. As a consequence, many of them live in poverty and mainly rely on the informal sector for work. To understand the origins of the human rights issues faced by Bidoon, it is first necessary to situate their historical context.
Background and citizenship
Their precarious legal condition is due to the establishment of the modern Kuwaiti state in the mid-20th century. Kuwait’s Emir at the time, Abdullah al-Salim, issued a nationality law in 1959 which granted nationality to those settled in Kuwait before 1920. Nevertheless, many of them were not able to obtain Kuwaiti nationality for a number of reasons. Firstly, individuals were only eligible to apply for citizenship before 1965. Secondly, the naturalization process was mainly focused on the urban environment of Kuwait, excluding many of those who lived in the hinterland as they did not know how to apply. Finally, many residents at the time retained the nomadic lifestyles characteristic of the Arab Peninsula, so they were not able to provide proof of continuous residence in the country. As a result of these factors, many populations currently living in Kuwait are categorized as Bidoon.
Nonetheless, being designated a Bidoon did not become a significant issue until the mid-1980s. Before that, the Kuwaiti government treated them as equals, by granting them full access to national welfare and to state employment, and even granting them passports. But many of these rights were revoked after 1985. Nowadays, granting citizenship has become a controversial and restricted process, due to the economic benefits attached. For instance, lawmakers announced in March 2011 a package that would grant civil, social and economic rights to the Bidoon, but they were never implemented. In August 2019, a law was passed again allowing the Kuwaiti government to grant citizenship throughout the year to up to 4,000 individuals who could prove that their ancestors were registered in the 1965 census, had served in the army or police, and had lived in Kuwait. Unfortunately, there are no records and statistics on the number of individuals that were registered, which raises the suspicion that the government has not attained its own goal of granting Kuwaiti citizenship to 4,000 individuals.
Additionally, there is a current administrative body responsible for reviewing Bidoon claims to nationality, called the Central System to Resolve Illegal Resident’s Status, which was established in November 2010. This body holds exclusive authority to determine all matters touching upon nationality or official documentation for the Bidoon. In its establishing decree the Bidoon committee was tasked with “taking all executive procedures to resolve the illegal residents’ situation” as well as “proposing drafts of laws and regulations deemed necessary to end the illegal residents’ situation. Yet, previous versions of this body have failed to resolve the statelessness of over 106,000 Bidoon.
Since Bidoon children are not recognized as Kuwaiti citizens, they do not have the right to attend public schools. Nonetheless, most of the children have the right to attend private schools, where the quality and standard of education is lower. Restrictions on access to education for the Bidoon mean that, at best, children receive a level of instruction inferior to that of Kuwaiti citizen children at elementary and secondary levels; at worst, some Bidoon children fail to receive any education at all, even at the elementary level. Finally, the government does not take steps to enforce attendance to elementary schools for Bidoon children, which as a consequence, Bidoon girls are at risk of being kept out, since their families cannot afford to educate all children and they typically choose the boys.
Under Kuwaiti law, only those with legal resident or citizen status can legally hold employment. Without the ability to prove either Kuwaiti or foreign nationality, the Bidoon may not legally hold jobs in Kuwait regardless of their status as security card holders. Additionally, regardless of their level of education, Bidoon face discrimination in employment by virtue of their “illegal” status. Although many government ministries hire Bidoon, this is generally on the basis of “remuneration for work” contracts which offer little job security and none of the benefits provided by law to citizens and expatriate workers, such as paid sick leave, annual leave and pensions. Moreover, in both the public and private sectors, salaries offered to Bidoon are generally lower than those offered to citizens and expatriate workers. In reality, many Bidoon are forced to earn a living in the informal sector, such as selling fruits and vegetables on the street. However, since they cannot obtain commercial licenses or own property, they are at constant risk of being arrested or having their goods confiscated for operating businesses illegally.
Bidoon women suffer from multiple forms of discrimination and abuse, and find themselves in a particularly vulnerable position. It has been reported that Bidoon women and girls have faced sexual harassment from government officials while applying for documentation, and that Bidoon women cannot claim their legally enshrined rights upon divorce since Bidoon marriages remain unregistered by the authorities.
Like many of its neighbors in the Gulf region, Kuwaiti law determines that a child’s nationality is that of his or her father, and that a mother or a foreign-born father cannot pass their nationality to their children. This discrimination against women expands the problem of statelessness, as the children of Bidoon men and Kuwaiti women become stateless. Furthermore, in July 2010 the Interior Ministry submitted an amendment to the National Assembly that allows Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaiti men to sponsor their husbands and children to acquire Kuwaiti nationality provided they have been married for ten years. While an improvement, this proposal still amounts to discrimination against Kuwaiti women in their ability to pass their nationality on to their husband and children, as Kuwaiti men need only be married for five years before their wives gain citizenship, and children of Kuwaiti men gain citizenship at birth.
In conclusion, Bidoon experience a high level of discrimination due to their condition of being stateless. They are part of a poverty cycle that they cannot leave. This cycle starts when they are born and they cannot get nationality due to their parents or mother being Bidoon or married to a Bidoon. As a result, they do not have equal access to education which prevents them from achieving quality employment in the future, and relegates them to the informal sector. There is an urgent need for the Kuwaiti government to naturalize Bidoon in the country so they can have access to the same free social services as the rest of the population.