A road, sometimes just a dirt track, separates the two worlds. On the wrong side, low houses made of breezeblocks or corrugated iron, entrances blocked with stretched sheets, bare electric wires at ground level, a temporary look that never ends. On the other side, villas of several floors, dapper, not necessarily luxurious, but which breathe well-being and stability.
Like the other oil-producing countries of the Gulf, Kuwait lives off a foreign workforce that can be bent over backwards. But the “Bidoon”, these disenfranchised citizens, are a particularity of the small emirate.
The Bidoon, from the Arabic ‘Bidun jinsiya’ (‘without nationality’), who make up at least 10% of Kuwait’s indigenous population, or between 100,000 and 120,000 people, have had this special legal status since the founding of modern Kuwait. According to the Kuwaiti Nationality Decree of 1959, “original Kuwaitis are those who settled in Kuwait before 1920 and maintained their residence there until the publication of this decree”.
The difficulty encountered by the Bidoon community lies in the state’s consideration that perceives them as “illegal migrants”. Bidoon’s rights are therefore significantly limited, as they do not have access to the many services of the welfare state, notably education and health. The issue of the Bidoon therefore questions the mechanisms of state discrimination that is exercised “within the same ethnic group”.
As a consequence of their illegal status, Bidoon residents are generally poorer than other Kuwaiti citizens, as they are discriminated against when it comes to employment. It is indeed much more difficult for them to be hired in the public sector as the Kuwaiti government has instituted discriminatory policies against Bidoon. Whether in the public or private sector, Bidoon earn lower wages compared to Kuwaiti citizens, are prevented from sick leaves and pension, and benefit from very little security. Numerous Bidoon are therefore left with no choice but to illegally engage into the informal sector, by becoming street sellers to be able to survive, thus making them vulnerable to police arrests. The situation is of course even more serious for undocumented Bidoon who were denied a security card.
With regards to their living conditions, Bidoon individuals usually live in precarious housing, not adequate to the Kuwaiti weather, in the outskirts of Kuwait city. As almost no low-cost houses have been built since the 1970’s, there is an increase of shantytowns in the areas and overcrowding. Additionally, it is not rare that landlords are punished if they agree to rent their house to a Bidoon family.
Furthermore, Bidoon residents have to spend a significant amount of money on State services that are usually free of charge for anybody else, such as education and healthcare, thus increasing the wealth gap between Bidoon and Kuwaiti. However, as most Bidoon live under the poverty line, they are unable to pay for such services and therefore access some of their most fundamental human rights. Whereas healthcare is free for Kuwait citizens, Bidoon residents have access to some medical insurances, which however offer very limited protection. The situation is even more serious for undocumented Bidoon, who have been denied a security card, as they can only attend expensive private hospitals. The consequences can therefore be very dramatic, as undocumented Bidoon women face for instance greater risk of dying due to pregnancy.
Bidoon’s right and access to education is also hindered. Whereas public schools are free for Kuwait citizens, Bidoon children are only allowed to attend fee-paying private schools, which provide a lower standard of education. In fact, parents of Bidoon children need to pay 30 percent of the fees on average, whereas the State financial assistance covers what is left. However, private schools have started to increase their tuition fees, making it impossible for many Bidoon parents to finance their children’s education. As a result, families tend to unschool some of their children in order to be able to finance education for another child. The Committee of the Rights of the Child is extremely concerned about the significant number of Bidoon children forced to sell items on the street in order to help their parents. This whole education system just reinforces the wealth disparity within the State of Kuwait, as it is almost impossible for Bidoon children to get richer in the future. And even if they achieved to do so, as mentioned above, they would not be entitled to the same jobs as Kuwaiti citizens.
The State of Kuwait needs to act urgently, as the alert has already been raised. Indeed, this precarious situation has recently led to many cases of suicide. The last to date was some days ago when a Bidoon man self-immolated, as his security card was not renewed.
The protectiveness over Kuwaiti citizenship is largely based on the resistance of the ruling class to share their citizenship-based financial privileges, particularly when it comes to the redistribution of state wealth. The debate, which remained internal for decades, took another turn following the Human Rights Watch report on the Bidoon situation in 1995. In 2011, with the very first demonstrations by the Bidoon in the Kuwaiti public arena, a real turning point was reached in the visibility of this category of population in the public sphere. These events follow on from the emergence of forms of activism among the younger generation, whose demands are centred around access to ‘basic human rights’ such as education and employment. Such developments in the mobilisation capacities of the Bidoon, even if they have so far had little impact on government action, have contributed to the formation of an organised political discourse, and of leadership figures who carry these discourses.