Stateless ‘Bidoons’ in Kuwait

            In Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries, there is a minority representing about 2.3 per cent of the total population without nationality. Also known as “Bidoon”, meaning “without nationality” and accounting for at least 120.000 inhabitants, they make up a stateless minority. Ignored and excluded from society by the Kuwaiti government, they are living on the fringes of society suffering abuse and discrimination since Kuwait’s independence. By being excluded as citizens, various laws have stripped them of their rights, deeming them as “illegal residents” despite their birth on Kuwaiti soil. Bidoons lack Kuwaiti nationality for three main reasons. Firstly, they have been unable to prove residential ties to Kuwait prior to 1920 when the link to territory was considered mainly in determining the “founding citizens”. Secondly, they failed for various reasons to apply for citizenship following Kuwait’s independence in 1961. Lastly, during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a minority of Bidoons joined Iraqi forces. Thus, Kuwaiti nationals and authorities started to label the Bidoon minority as Iraqi agents, which led to widespread mistrust and a reluctance to accept them as citizens later on. In the same context, Kuwaiti nationality is determined by Kuwait’s 1959 Nationality Law and citizenship derives entirely from the father, creating a continuous pattern of exclusion accounting for the growing number of stateless Bidoons, who may not claim citizenship from their Kuwaiti mothers.

Even though Kuwait is bound by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to end discrimination against the Bidoon community and guarantee non-discrimination in the fulfilment of human rights, including the right to a nationality Kuwait still continually and systematically discriminates against this stateless minority. As citizenship is the most important prerequisite to access government programs such as medical care, education, social services and employment, Bidoons find themselves deprived of their fundamental social, political and economic rights. With no administrative identity and legal documentation, this community lacks any protection against all hazards. Hence, the Kuwaiti government is in violation of its own constitutional law guaranteeing equal public rights to its residents and violates its international obligations. In September 2017, a panel of experts of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated that “Bidoon do not enjoy equal access to social services, due process, and legally valid civil documentation.”

Also, statelessness affects adults and children in their daily life, making impossible the exercise of basic rights such as education. Bidoon parents have to send their children to unaffordable private schools as they do not have birth certificates to enrol them in government-run public schools. Although there is a state-sponsored fund for education that Bidoon families can access, it is not effective as it depends on familial, social and economic connections, at times somewhat arbitrary. Therefore, the Kuwaiti government is in violation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Kuwait promised to uphold all children’s right to a nationality.

Furthermore, the Kuwaiti government embarked on a policy of harassment and intimidation, mass firings, and summary deportations, in an apparent attempt to expel the whole community out of the country or dramatically reduce its size. In an official statement, the Kuwait Society for Human Rights describes the situation of Bidoons as “worse than ever before.” It argues that the “state department responsible for them has taken arbitrary measures and is exerting pressure on the majority of the Bidoon people.” The government’s tools of repression consist of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, unfair trial procedures and lack of due process rights, and torture. They are commonly arrested on charges relating to the normal exercise of their universal rights to free expression, assembly, and association. These ongoing discriminations and violations of human rights sparked peaceful protests in Kuwait from 2011 to 2014, claiming greater rights for the stateless community. According to Amnesty International, more than a dozen Bidoon were arrested. Among them was the prominent human rights lawyer Abdelhakim al-Fadhli. Amnesty International reported the torture and ill-treatment inflicted by Kuwaiti security forces. Bidoons have been blindfolded, suspended by their hands and feet, beaten with sticks, slapped and forced to “confess”. The government’s violent reaction has aggravated an already tense situation.

The protests brought the government to solve the situation and set up various bodies to deal with the Bidoon issue, such as the Central Committee to Resolve the Status of Illegal Residents and a mechanism, known as “Bidoon committee,” by which Bidoon can seek nationality. However, in 2018, the minister of education rejected a parliamentary proposal to register children of Bidoon in public schools and in November 2019, new legislation was brought up regarding the Bidoon but the “advantages” were only granted if the Bidoon showed their non-Kuwaiti citizenship. 

Thus, the authorities only shifted Bidoon citizenship applications to a series of administrative committees that avoided resolving their complaints producing no significant change as the number of Bidoon naturalised has only reached three per cent of the 120,000 Bidoons which did not resolve the problem. Instead, Kuwait denies concerns about statelessness by asserting that Bidoons are foreigners that forfeit their true nationality in order to benefit Kuwait’s advantageous system. Still, the UN Human Rights Committee instructed Kuwait to end discrimination against the Bidoon community and called upon the country to “find a durable solution” and to assess applications for Kuwaiti nationality “through written, reasoned decisions that may be appealed.” Consequently, the government has failed to keep its promise to solve the issue of Bidoons, as their access to these government services remains impeded and the granting of citizenship extremely limited. 

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) advocates for the amendment of the Kuwaiti Nationality Law in order to allow women to transfer their nationality to the child and to grant all children born in Kuwait Kuwaiti nationality and for the granting of all Bidoons documents and citizenship.

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