Stateless in Kuwait: Who Are the Bidoon?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kuwait’s independence as well as the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. So it’s a sad irony that 2011 also marks the 50th anniversary of statelessness for Kuwait’s bidoon.

Estimates of the bidoon population range from 93,000 to 180,000—around ten percent of the Kuwaiti citizenry.

Why don't we have a better idea how many they are? Believe it or not, one of the richest countries on earth simply cannot be bothered to document the size of its stateless population, let alone resolve this longstanding problem.  While Kuwaiti citizens enjoy a huge range of financial luxuries by virtue of being citizens, stateless people in the small country live in slum-like settlements on the outskirts of its cities.

"Bidoon" refers to a diverse group of people who at the time of independence were not given Kuwaiti nationality. When the British ended the protectorate in 1961, about one-third of the population was given nationality on the basis of being “founding fathers” of the new nation state, another third were naturalized as citizens, and the rest were considered to be bidoon jinsiya—or “without nationality,” in Arabic.

The explanations are many, and some people I have spoken to believe that ultimately it boils down to Kuwaiti politics being extremely elitist, and essentially lacking in sympathy for people who are less well-positioned in the social and economic hierarchy. Conversations I have had with policy makers further reinforce this.

Many Kuwaiti policy-makers claim that the bidoon are not in fact stateless, but rather that they are nationals of other states—Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. While it’s certainly possible—and likely—that there are a few foreign nationals who claim to be bidoon, the vast majority are not considered nationals by any other state.

In Kuwait last week, I spoke with several stateless persons and while one personal story differs from another, they have in common that they can show a connection to Kuwait that goes back to the pre-independence period—be it the ID card of a grandfather born in what is now Kuwait in 1935, or their own birth records from the 1950s.

The bidoon saga is shameful for a country like Kuwait, which has all the resources it needs to resolve this issue but has instead chosen to pretend like this is someone else’s problem. And not only is Kuwait not doing anything about the statelessness issue, but the vast majority of the bidoon lack even the most basic civil rights. One man I spoke to, who is married to a Kuwaiti national, has four children who cannot get birth certificates, and, as a result, the authorities refuse to admit them to public schools.

How does this happen? When a woman, whether Kuwaiti or bidoon or a foreign national, gives birth she receives from the hospital a record of the birth which, by law, must be traded in for a birth certificate within two weeks. However, on the record, the hospital must note the parents’ nationalities, and bidoon will typically be asked to either sign that they are nationals of some other state or that they are simply "non-Kuwaiti."

Some refuse to do so, as they believe it may jeopardize a future claim to nationality for themselves and their children, and, as a result, the authorities do not put the child’s name on the paper, making the document no good to trade in for a birth certificate. Oh, and I forgot to mention: Kuwait does not allow its female nationals to confer nationality to their children, and as a result a Kuwaiti woman married to a bidoon man gives birth to stateless children—entirely in contravention of Kuwait’s international obligations.

Even in cases where the parents do sign the hospital record, they must provide their marriage certificate in order for the authorities to issue a birth certificate. Most bidoon cannot get marriage certificates for many of the same reasons outlined above, which in turn makes it impossible to acquire a birth certificate. Without a birth certificate, the child is not welcome in public schools, nor can it receive subsidized health care—including basic immunizations. For those who nevertheless manage to get a private primary education, enrolling in further education is not possible without documentation.

Not only is this a clear violation of Kuwait’s obligations under international law, it is also causing deep resentment among the bidoon—a frustration that may very well be Kuwait’s largest security threat right now.

On February 18, 2011, the first antigovernment protests among the bidoon took place. Afraid of the protest spiraling out of control the way they have in other parts of the region, the government quickly promised some meager reforms. But by March 11, after no changes had materialized, some of the bidoon decided to protest again. This time the government responded with excessive force, employing tear gas and flares to break up crowds, then arbitrarily running after and beating people at random.

Some bidoon even told me that riot police fired teargas into people’s homes. One-hundred-forty bidoon were detained without charge—at the time of writing many were still held—and families had not been notified of their whereabouts. All reports from the protests suggest that they were peaceful—that the bidoon were simply chanting that they love their country and their emir, and that they want their rights.

Government officials assured me that 11 basic rights will be granted in the very near future, but at the time of writing nothing had changed. And although basic rights are essential in this context, the problem will not be adequately resolved unless the nationality issue is addressed. Protests are likely to continue.

The international community has so far been silent on the matter (well, some claim they discuss the issue with the authorities behind closed doors) and Kuwait’s reputation grows more tarnished every day that it continues to let its people down. Similar promises in the past have resulted in nothing, but perhaps things are different this time around. Perhaps Kuwait will seize on the opportunity to celebrate 50 years of independence by ending 50 years of statelessness for the bidoon.

15 Comments

Hide

Sometimes what humans let others suffer is unbelievable. Hopefully, the ongoing Arab rebellion against deaf governance will secure their nationality rights to these people.Highlighting this problem, as this article has done, helps.

Chidi G Osuagwu

Thanks Chidi for your comment. I certainly hope you are right! Unfortunately Kuwait has made many promises over the years without any concrete result. Although the general situation in the region is very different this time around the government has developed expertise in keeping the population quiet. Recently it gave 1,000 KD (about 4,000 USD) to all citizens as a gift to mark the celebration of independence...
Ultimately we need to see more people speak up against violations of their rights and the rights of others. And we need powerful international actors, including the UN, the US, the EU and others to be more vocal and clearer in their criticism of the Kuwaiti government (which by the way appears to be quite sensitive to international pressure and cares about its image). Take the UNHCR for example which holds the international mandate to address statelessness; despite a real statelessness crisis in the country it doesn't have a single person in the field office devoted to this problem.

Bidoon- they have the right to get a kuwaity passport, but they don't get it because the are said to be iraqi or from other countries. Well they are wrong I am a bidoon and my life wasn't fair. My dad was a soldier and he fought in the war between my iraq and kuwait, he is said to be Iraqi and that's why he cannot get a passport how is that true his parents and he and his grandparents lived in kuwait he and his brothers caught in the war trying to save their country one of them died and my dad got injured but still he is denied the right of holding a passport that proves what he says. That's not fair bidoons in kuwait can't get birth/marriage/death certificates they can't work can't drive but still need to pay for health and education!!! Like seriously where are they going to get money from their children can't get into university and even if they do it doesn't help because they can't work. Its really sad since kuwait opened and became a country they were there they stood for their country and they still do but sadly they can't prove they are Kuwaity but I assure you that we are kuwaities and we do not need the passport to prove that and no one can stop us from believing that we are kuwaity. My dad died three years ago its true that he had a hard life and was not able to get his rights but he never hated his country.

Thanks PROUD for sharing your experiences! Unfortunately many bidoon have a similar story to tell. Hopefully there are better times to come...

Bidoon- they have the right to get a kuwaity passport, but they don't get it because the are said to be iraqi or from other countries. Well they are wrong I am a bidoon and my life wasn't fair. My dad was a soldier and he fought in the war between my iraq and kuwait, he is said to be Iraqi and that's why he cannot get a passport how is that true his parents and he and his grandparents lived in kuwait he and his brothers caught in the war trying to save their country one of them died and my dad got injured but still he is denied the right of holding a passport that proves what he says. That's not fair bidoons in kuwait can't get birth/marriage/death certificates they can't work can't drive but still need to pay for health and education!!! Like seriously where are they going to get money from their children can't get into university and even if they do it doesn't help because they can't work. Its really sad since kuwait opened and became a country they were there they stood for their country and they still do but sadly they can't prove they are Kuwaity but I assure you that we are kuwaities and we do not need the passport to prove that and no one can stop us from believing that we are kuwaity. My dad died three years ago its true that he had a hard life and was not able to get his rights but he never hated his country.

Thanks PROUD for sharing your experiences! Unfortunately many bidoon have a similar story to tell. Hopefully there are better times to come...

I am from Kuwait; born and grew up, but not Kuwaiti, although I lived nowhere else. I belong to a community known as the Bedoon, or “stateless”.  

In 1961, Kuwait became a country, and citizenship was granted by a serpentine, somewhat random process that divided brothers, cousins, families and tribes into Kuwaitis and stateless, or today, the “haves” and “have not’s". Stateless people are denied citizenship and all the basic human rights. Bedoon is a marginalised minority, absolutely disenfranchised and has no representation in the parliament. As a Bedoon (stateless) person, I am "dictated to by laws for which I do not vote".

Although I have documents -date to the 1970's- proving that my father was Kuwaiti, yet I and my family are considered and treated as illegal residents. During the 1970's through 1980's, my father supported his family of twelve, diving for pearls in the waters of the Persian Gulf. He left the house when I was five, out of fear of further persecution, and I have not seen him again.  My mother is an Arab housewife. She has never worked, and neither of my parents ever learned to read or write in any language.

To compensate for her unpleasant life, my mother encouraged me to obtain recognition and validation through education and hardwork. Of my brothers and sisters, I am the only one to have had a chance to attend college.

School is a challenge for the Bedoon, as we are discouraged from learning, and pushed into blue-collar labour at young age. We are not allowed to attend the formal Kuwaiti school system and forced to work with sometimes apathetic teachers.

Somehow, through perseverance and the grace of God, I did not succumb to the desperation that overwhelmed most of the stateless youth. In spite of all impediments, I managed to progress and obtained my first university degree in 2014 with first class honours, a GPA of 3.91/4.00.

I have innate passion for knowledge. I see education as a process that would place me where I really fit in human society. For me, education is a career, not a stage. That is why, having completed my undergraduate studies, I am now striving to pursue my postgraduate education. This ambition, however, is hindered now.

Like all other rights, travel is a dilemma for Bedoons. All Kuwaiti citizens are eligible to obtain a blue coloured passport, valid for travelling the world. This is by no means applicable to stateless people. A stateless person has to beg in order to get a grey passport. The grey passport - so called Article 17, is issued under extraordinary conditions and would be valid for one destination only determined by the immigration department. To apply for Article 17, one needed to: (i) have 1965 census record to prove that he/she (or their father) has been living in Kuwait from 1965 till the date, say 2015; (ii) have an acceptance/offer from an overseas university for a higher degree; (iii) have an extremely serious health condition.

Based on my academic record, pursuit for higher education, I received offers from several international universities such as The University of Edinburgh, Trinity College of Dublin and West Virginia University to pursue my postgraduate studies. However, even under the given conditions, I am now prevented from travelling. A goverment decision made in June, 2015 denys thr Bedoons the right to issue or renew Article 17 passports even under the stipulated conditions.

This makes me extremely disappointed and will have prejudicial consequences on my personal as well as familial life. As part of my preparation for postgraduate studies in TCD, Ireland, I had resigned my job to satisfy the three-month notice period provided by Kuwait private sector labour law, hoping that I will have rewarding opportunities soon. I was under the impression that, as long as I have my offer from TCD, nothing will disrupt my plan. Now, I lost my job and my hope altogether.

Due to the lack of national/international protection, Bedoons (Stateless) are vulnerable to control, demonization and scarecrow policies. We cannot petition or protest, even verbally, the persisting persecution we are experiencing, which infringes all human rights laws. By the name of humanity, I appeal to everyone in the world to help me escape this misery.

Ahmad, I am so sorry to hear of your situation. I'm an American woman who lived in Kuwait for more than a decade and even lived in Jahra for a period of time. I'm very familiar with your situation and the challenges you face. My husband (who is from Kuwait) and I have spent a number of years trying to bring as much attention to the bidoon situation as we possibly can. And though we now live in America, we haven't stopped trying to make a difference. We're hoping to one day do a documentary on the stateless situation.

I enjoyed reading your story. Thank you for sharing.

Even the handicapped Bedoons (stateless) are persecuted. One of my brothers suffers permanent mental disability and he was never allowed to any school. He is denied all the rights conferred by the special needs Acts. Instead of providing him with special care/protection -as his disability demands- police officers repeatedly put him in psychiatric custody, though he is a special needs and not psychiatric. Being a stateless handicapped doubles his misery. He refused by the society and is always vulnerable to constant abuse by unscrupulous people, police officers and psychiatric hospital staff. Local huuman rights societies were informed of his case but they are out of the loop. The most they do is courtesy.

I work in Kuwait on three occasions, I have met many
"without" who were taxi drivers, their story are real and
so sad, I hope the law change .

I am one of the people who born and grew up in Kuwait and we been struggling to get the Kuwaiti identity .

After a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991, and exactly in 1992 were booted out of Kuwait in a campaign of violence and terror. We deported from Kuwait to Iraq because the Kuwaiti government realized that there are a lot of Iraqi people had entered with the Iraqi army into Kuwait for looting and living in Kuwait so there were more than three thousand families from Bidoon were deported from Kuwait to Iraq by force under the pretext of that we are Bidoon and we have no right to live in Kuwait .

The suffering that we have faced in Iraq for more that twenty years and we are suffering from the persecution on Iraq by Saddam Hussein and Al- Baath party addition to the difficulty to getting a good education , poorly health care centers , the disappearance of the human rights , very bad living standards , personal persecution by the people not to mention the psychological disorders which we obtained because of all that .

We could not get out side Iraq to Jordan or Turkey during Saddam's era for several reasons :
1-There is no legitimate and legal way to get out of Iraq.
2- Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party were killing every person has the simplest relationship with Iran or Turkey , What do you think if you are arrested and while you trying to get out of Iraq forward Iran or Turkey knowing that the travel to Iran and Turkey was forbidden in the era of Saddam.

3- Living in a society lacks the human rights and seeing nothing but injustice and oppression
that makes you think before taking any action fearing for yourself and your family to become a victim of prison or execution .

After the fall of Saddam Hussein and Al- Bath party we were hoping that conditions will improve for the better. But , unfortunately that our situation changed for the the worst, the parties and the militias have abounded and the politicians do not care about anyone they work only for themselves, in addition to the decline in intellectual awareness and living on a very low level in the terms of economic , intellectual and scientific make a person living on the margin and all these things reduces the presence of opportunities in front of each person wants to feel with his freedom and wants to study and innovates. Currently i am under the threat of the militias and the political parties at Iraq because of my previous work as interpreter with the US army in Iraq during 2003 . For all of that I am writing to you and i want to talk to anybody who can help .

Help,
sir iam Pakistani national and my birth in kuwait(1970) do you help me for Kuwaiti nationality. I have a birth certificate of Kuwait.

Hovering between heaven and hell is my life as a stateless person. A spirit with hopes to flourish but limited by rusty chains. A childhood bypassed on a train of miseries heading to undefined destinations. All what I have seen is a crushing fence of put-downs cramming thoughts into the nous. "How to fly with a pair of severed wings?". I ask myself. I dodge through a dark fume blocking my vision but from grey. My lungs have inhaled enough Oil smoke to choke. My heart throbs like a drowning man in a bottomless Gulf. I look for a glow to take my not-giving-up spirit ashore. I want to live and guide dupes make it out of hell. It's not easy though to challenge Satans and their sons. They have means to keep down or chouse unshielded heads.

My dream is to grow trees with seeds of love. The air grants life to all creatures unbiasedly. A sky of somberness cannot veil a lusty moon. Dark clouds cannot curtain a shining sun. And if they do, light does penetrate albeit. Fertile soils can make heaven so handy. All the beauty of nature is made of air, water and dust. Every grain of sand, drop of water or a breeze of air is a unique universe full of love and life. It is just a matter of time. Maybe tomorrow or some other day. I will go up or down. To reach my heaven or fall into hell, my voice will be always high --shrieking, "free me or take my soul away". A stateless man.

I was totally shocked when I witnessed this situation, earlier in July this year, whilst visiting friends in Kuwait. I am very fond of the country, its achievements, and the generosity of many of the people I met. However, I became increasingly concerned about attitudes towards first of all migrant workers; there seems to be a general lack of respect for all of them, although there is a hierarchy. So called "Expats" who happen to be white, receive the most respect, followed by those from other parts of the peninsular, then by those from Egypt. Those treated despicably, are those from the Philippines (by far these people however seem to receive the best attention out of those who are subjected to racist / elitist attitudes), followed by those from India (I witnessed many "locals" shouting at these people, with no regard for them as human beings at all, and in some cases completely ignoring them, or throwing rubbish at them), followed ultimately by those from Africa. I felt most sorry for the African Nationals often stuck in the harshest of environments, with minimal human contact, working on farms in 50C+, who are repeatedly accused of being "rapists and savages" by the "locals" who employ them, who have absolutely no regard for the conditions these people are subjected to and the reasons why they are willing to work in these conditions (ie. because their countries of origin such as Sudan, have become intolerable, and they are fighting to support their families). Many of these African workers had been in the country nearly 20 years, not being able to return home to see their families, simply working to be able to send home money to support them. I was absolutely disgusted at the treatment of these people, and attitudes towards them, especially their treatment as "sub-humans".

This was all until I happened to spot a camp, largish, outside of Kuwait City, and asked who all these people living here were. They by far lived in the harshest conditions of all, with the majority of Kuwait citizens benefiting from extreme air conditioning, these people however were surviving in tents, during a local heatwave, where the temperature hit 60C at one point, and was continuously around 45-50C. I was absolutely disgusted by the response I got. I was told these are the "untouchables". I did not understand what this meant, and was told these are the Bidoon - the "illegal Immigrants". I asked as to how a government which such status as the Kuwaiti government were incapable at dealing with such large numbers of illegal immigrants, and was told that it is difficult because these people have no passports, and therefore no citizenship of any country to send them back to. What I saw, the conditions, compared to Kuwaiti citizens in the same country, have haunted me ever since. And since I have read more about these people, and how they are mostly most definitely Kuwaiti, yet due to their circumstances did not have the paper work requested at the time (some were Bedouin, not to be confused with Bidoon, and such people often do not have such documentation), I am absolutely astounded at how the richest country on earth can treat its own citizens in this manner. The fact that these people are denied basic human rights, access to state education, work, funding, medical care, the right to drive (which I noticed also applied to migrant workers not earning a specific salary), the ability to travel (without being refused re-entry to Kuwait) is a total disgrace to this country. What makes this situation worse, is that they are hidden away, in the desert, and a blind eye is turned by all, citizens, military personnel (US and UK), and even members of the British Government - as Tony Blair (former Pri minister for UK) now works in an advisory role for the government, yet has accepted payment in a role where he can ignore the existence of this entire group of people.

Even more sad is that this can be directly compared to the situation in Palestine and South Africa - where citizens were robbed of their citizenship, by a minority population , but in this case, there is not even any difference (not that this would make it acceptable) in race / religion. These people are natives of this land. This would be comparable to what happened in Palestine, but rather than by Israelis, it is like Palestinians doing this to other Palestinians, which of course did not happen.

I am so shocked that the whole world is turning a blind eye to this issue. And I feel terrible that these people, whom I was not allowed to speak with, actually believe that we, the rest of the world, do not care, and somehow think this is acceptable. The opposite is true; if there are any Bedoon reading this, I think your situation, and what your own Government has done to you is shameful, and beyond belief. It was the most cruel thing I have witnessed in a long time. I have witnessed poverty in parts of Africa, where the Governments are poor, and therefore struggle to support these people. But the Kuwaiti Government is by no means unable to support ANYBODY in this country. It seems, judging by the general attitude (again elitist is a good word), that unfortunately there can be such a thing as having "too much oil".

I do hope that these people can receive more publicity worldwide, as this may at least affect the working relationships between many countries and Kuwait, which Kuwait cares very much about. I have to say, the country does NOT deserve the amount of respect it currently receives. Human Rights Watch does exactly that ("watches"), but cannot do anything else. Watching for over 40 years is, other than for investigatory purposes, not much help to those suffering. It is not fair. These people have only started to protest very recently, but until now they have STILL shown their love for their country and Government, and patiently waiting for things to change for them. I do not believe that this would happen anywhere else in the world; in other places there would be extreme levels of unrest.

This is unacceptable. These people should not be ignored any longer. And although this is unrelated, I was glad to hear that Kuwait was not allowed to take part as a country in the Olympic Games, when the majority of the rest of the planet is. This shows that they cannot always get their own way. I am still fond of this country, but I cannot help feeling bitterness towards the Government after witnessing how it treats the so called "bedoon" (its own people).

I know this is a very long comment (!), apologies, but I would very much like to hear from anybody else on this matter.

Add your voice