UNESCO has stated that access to education is a human right that needs to be hugely promoted, as it is indispensable in order to reduce poverty, promote sustainable development and build peace. However, this right is not safeguarded in many States, as it is estimated that over 10 percent of the children below 12 years of age do not attend school around the globe. This is the situation in Kuwait, as access to education remains hindered for many Bidoon children.
Bidoon are a stateless Arab minority in Kuwait who were denied citizenship despite being indegeneous to the land. Bidoon are categorized as “illegal residents” by the government, although they are not related to any other country. Because of this categorization, it is very difficult for Bidoon residents to get any official civil documents, to find employment, and to access healthcare services, education, and other social services provided to Kuwaiti citizens.
With regard to education, Bidoon children were granted the same rights as Kuwaiti children after the country’s independence. However, the situation drastically changed in the 1980s when Bidoon started being excluded from public schools and universities, as Kuwaiti authorities tightened up their policies in light of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, Bidoon children have only been allowed to attend private schools, which must be paid for and provide a lower standard of education than Kuwaiti public schools. Since poverty within the Bidoon community is more widespread than amongst Kuwaiti citizens on average, many families struggle to pay educational fees. In fact, parents of Bidoon children normally need to pay approximately 30 percent of the fees, whereas the State financial assistance covers what is left. However, private schools have started to increase their tuition fees, making it impossible for numerous Bidoon parents to finance their children’s education.
Eligibility for school assistance for Bidoon children is quite problematic: families must have a valid identity card issued by the Bidoon Committee and several exams must have been passed by the child. If any of these two conditions are not fulfilled, the student will be forced to leave school. This draconian measure leaves many Bidoon children unschooled, leading them to work as illegal street vendors, without any police protection.
Furthermore, many Bidoon children are not granted any more guarantee of receiving an education in the private school system. Indeed, as stateless children receive assistance from the State for private school tuitions, many administrations refuse their applications, alleging that their parents destroyed their Kuwaiti identification document and become Bidoon, as is pointed out by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index 2020 country report on Kuwait.
The fact that private schools have become extremely expensive for Bidoon families has a dramatic impact for girls. Indeed, as pointed out in the Bidoon profile published by Minority Rights Group International, numerous Bidoon parents only allow their daughter(s) to attend school every two years so that they can afford to send their son(s) to school every year.
Bidoon students were forbidden to access Kuwaiti Universities until 2013. The government then decided to authorize them to apply to universities, setting however two restrictive conditions: security clearance must be obtained by the Bidoon Committee, and students must have achieved a 90 per cent school average. Universities only accept up to 100 Bidoon students a year since then.
Such a limited right to education does not only concern children of both Bidoon parents, but also children of Kuwaiti mothers and Bidoon fathers. They are granted the right to public education such as Kuwaiti citizens until the age of 18. However, upon turning eighteen, they lose this right and are fully considered Bidoon. This policy jeopardizes their future as they are most likely to face deportation in the absence of employment.
In November 2010, the Central Committee to Resolve the Illegal Residents’ Status replaced the Central Committee to Resolve the Status of Illegal Residents, and one of its mandates was to create eleven “facilities”, which should be granted to Bidoon residents. One of these facilities was access to education. While the announcement of these measures was welcomed by numerous human rights groups, the implementation of these facilities has been heavily criticised. Indeed, as pointed out in a report recently published by the British Independent Advisory Group on Country Information, although some improvements have been made with regard to other facilities, almost nothing has changed regarding access to education.
Access to education for all children is something that would not only be beneficial for the Bidoon community but also for the State of Kuwait, as it is one of the easiest tools to reduce poverty in the country. Indeed, UNICEF has stated that “When children are offered the tools to develop to their full potential, they become productive adults ready to give back to their communities and break the cycle of poverty. Education enables upward socioeconomic mobility.” .
As inclusive education would drastically have a significant role in poverty reduction as well as in the fight against discrimination, it is important for Kuwait to now comply with its international human rights commitments with regard to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Indeed, as the Committee on the Right of the Child has recommended, it is time for Kuwait to “to put an end to the segregation between Kuwaiti and bidoon children in schools and ensure that the latter have full access to public schools without discrimination.”