Stateless and defenceless – The Bidoon community in Kuwait

2011 Kuwait Bidun

Despite its position as one of the wealthiest economies in the world, Kuwait is notorious for its discriminatory treatment of the Bedoon community. The term ‘Bedoon’, deriving from the Arabic expression bidūn jinsīya, “without nationality”, defines men and women who, despite being born in Kuwait, are considered “illegal residents”. The roots of the problem go back to 1959 when the Kuwaiti authorities ruled that a number of Muslim and Arabic-speaking individuals failed to prove that their ancestors had settled in Kuwait before 1920 or that they had been residing in Kuwait for at least 15 years prior to 1959. Therefore, members of this group were denied their right to claim Kuwaiti citizenship and their descendants were condemned to a condition of statelessness. It is estimated that there are currently approximately 106,000 documented Bedoon residing in Kuwait.

Lack of access to services

The enforcement of the Kuwaiti Nationality Law stripped the tens of thousands of Bedoon of their access to public fundamental services such as public education, legal employment, or healthcare. Indeed, the Bedoon community has had to rely on private schooling, which is both more expensive and inferior to the public system. Additionally, their lack of education and restriction on property ownership, as well as Kuwaiti legal provisions on employment, limit the majority of Bedoon to work in the informal sector. Moreover, their government-attributed “illegal resident” label implies that the Bedoon are not entitled to public health care, forcing them to pay user fees or low-cost insurance that does not cover their health care costs, medication, or surgery.

State-sponsored discrimination of the Bedoon

The discriminatory practices against the Bedoon are the result of government policies that deliberately and gradually stripped the community of its fundamental rights. The 1986 Secret Committee of the Council of Ministers withdrew a significant number of privileges the Bedoon enjoyed before the establishment of the aforementioned institution, namely the right to access employment, enter marriage contracts, and the right to amend their names. The 1996 Executive Committee confiscated legal documents from Bedoon individuals to prevent them from claiming citizenship rights and was even accused of participating in human trafficking networks. The 2010 Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status has failed to resolve the claims of the 106,000 Bedoon inside Kuwait, and countless more outside Kuwait. As a consequence of these discriminatory policies, Bedoon individuals are not issued ID cards, which are needed to purchase real estate or cars, open a bank account, and enroll in schools and universities. Furthermore, Bedoon men and women do not receive birth, marriage nor death certificates. Instead, they are provided with “security cards” which explicitly state that they do “not serve as proof of identity, and may be used only for specified purposes.”

Bidoon activists: retaliation from the government

In July 2019, activists took to the streets to protest the death of 20-year-old Bedoon Ayed Hamad Moudath. He had committed suicide after encountering great difficulty to obtain official government documents, thus losing his job. Following these demonstrations, a dozen protestors, including prominent human rights defender Abdulhakim al-Fadhli, were arrested by the Kuwaiti authorities. Moudath’s death would have been commemorated a year later through a peaceful sit-in if it wasn’t for the arrest of the 15 activists who had planned the event. The actions of the Kuwaiti authorities portray a zero-tolerance policy toward dissent over the situation of stateless individuals in the country. Rather than complying with its international obligations, the Kuwaiti government continues to punish activists, deeming them political agitators and accusing them of partaking in illegal demonstrations aimed at destabilising the ruling system in the country.

Recent elections: what does it mean for the Bidoon?

Kuwait held a national election on December 5th, 2020. For the most part, this election did not break from the past. Despite the lack of female candidates being elected, issues such as the right of Kuwaiti women to pass citizenship to their children gained attention on new platforms. The Washington Post expects that, along with the issue of corruption, the employment of expatriates and a controversial Bedoon law “will probably be a priority” during the new legislation. Another suicide attempt by a member of the Bedoon community on 11 December 2020 sparked a heated debate at Kuwait’s Parliamentary Assembly, with lawmakers stating that “they will grill the Prime Minister (…) if the government does not provide a durable and fair solution to the issue of thousands of stateless people”. Even if there is an increased awareness on the issue of statelessness in Kuwait, no official or legal advancements have been made to solve the situation.

For almost a year now, Covid-19 has exacerbated the structural discrimination and social stigma experienced by the Bedoon community in Kuwait. While the Kuwaiti government continues to turn a blind eye to the increasing difficulties faced by Bedoon families as a consequence of the pandemic, the silence of the European institutions on the matter is deafening. Very rarely did the situation of the Bedoon seem to occupy a relevant position on the agenda of the European Parliament.

Almost five decades have passed since the ruling that de facto sanctioned the beginning of a systemic persecution campaign against the Bedoon. It is time that the human rights abuses against members of this stateless and defenceless group are addressed. It is one of the main human rights crises to have taken place in Kuwait and the wider Gulf region, and the European Union must treat it as such.