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.

11 Comments

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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 .

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