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.

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