Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Bidoon (short for bidoon jinsiya, meaning ‘without nationality’ in Arabic, and alternately spelt as Bedoon, Bidun and Bedun) are a stateless Arab minority in Kuwait who were not included as citizens at the time of the country’s independence or shortly thereafter. The term Bidoon should not be conflated with Bedouin: the latter refers to a much larger social-cultural category of desert-dwelling, nomadic pastoralists in the region, although there is some overlap between the two categories.
The government currently categorizes Bidoon as ‘illegal residents,’ despite the fact that many have no real connections to any country other than Kuwait, and in the face of decades of social discourse depicting Bidoon as connected to Kuwaiti territory. Due to their stateless status, Bidoon face difficulties in obtaining civil documents, finding employment, and accessing healthcare, education, and other social services provided to Kuwaiti citizens. As a result, many live in relative poverty and are relegated to working in the informal sector.
The situation of Bidoon in Kuwait is only one manifestation of a regional problem, with 500,000 people believed to be Bidoon across the Gulf region.
Most Bidoon come from nomadic tribes native to the Arabian Peninsula who were in Kuwait when the country gained independence in 1961 but were unable or unwilling to take the time needed to register as citizens. The process of determining who was eligible for citizenship, as set out by the 1959 nationality law, inherently favoured Kuwait’s urban residents and those who were connected to influential tribes or families. On the other hand, many tribal communities in outlying areas failed to register for citizenship when the law was passed, whether due to lack of awareness or understanding of the new law and its implications, illiteracy, or lack of documentation proving their connection to the territory. The concept of territorially-defined citizenship would also have been a foreign concept to many, as it diverged from traditional tribal understandings of belonging which were defined by allegiance to a leader in a context, moreover, where there continued to be migratory communities for whom the notion of states was unfamiliar. Consequently, approximately one third of the population of Kuwait at the time did not obtain citizenship and was classified as bidoon jinsiya. As a result of the sudden imposition of borders in the peninsula more widely, many other countries in the region also ended up with substantial Bidoon populations.
A second, smaller subset of Bidoon were previously based in nearby Arab states (including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan) and were recruited into the Kuwaiti army and police forces in the 1960s and 1970s. The newly formed Kuwaiti state, faced with the challenge of building a national army but finding insufficient interest among the national population, relied heavily on these foreign recruits in the early stages. However, rather than admit to the politically sensitive matter of recruiting foreigners, the Kuwaiti government registered them as bidoon jinsiya. Until the 1990s, around 80 per cent of the armed forces were Bidoon. Most Bidoon falling under this category are believed to have left Kuwait after the Gulf War, so the remaining Bidoon population today is predominantly composed of the first category of Bidoon, who do not possess nationalities of other Arab states.
In the first few decades after Kuwait’s independence, being Bidoon carried relatively few disadvantages. Bidoon had access to employment, public education and free healthcare, just as Kuwaiti citizens did. They were also able to register civil marriages and receive other forms of documentation. However, the right to political participation was one key area of difference vis-à-vis Kuwaiti citizens, as Bidoon were not allowed to vote. (Under the 1959 Nationality Act, even naturalized citizens are required to hold Kuwaiti citizenship for 30 years before they can vote).
From this situation of relatively equal status, Bidoon began to face increased restrictions on their rights from the mid-1980s onwards. In the context of rising sectarian strife and growing internal turmoil stoked, in part, by economic upheaval and regional tensions caused by the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the Kuwaiti government began to view Bidoon as a security threat, particularly as it became known that some incoming refugees and individuals from Iraq wishing to avoid military service and persecution were getting rid of their identity papers and posing as Bidoon.
In 1986, the government changed the status of Bidoon to ‘illegal residents’ and began to strip them of their rights. Large numbers were fired from their jobs, while the community as a whole was excluded from free education, housing and healthcare. In the late 1980s, the government sought to apply the terms of the Alien Residence Law and a number of Bidoon were reportedly expelled. In 1988, an appeal court ruled that as no other state considered them nationals, they could not be considered ‘aliens’ in terms of the law. The government ignored the ruling and continued, reportedly, to deport members of the Bidoon community.
Another turn for the worse came with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and subsequent Gulf War. As Bidoon made up the majority of the Kuwaiti army at the time, they became an easy scapegoat for their country’s capitulation to the rapidly advancing Iraqi army. Moreover, since some Bidoon were forced to fight on the Iraqi side, the entire community was stigmatized for collaboration. As soon as the Iraqi occupation ended, the Kuwaiti government intensified its efforts to punish and exclude Bidoon. Bidoon were dismissed en masse from the army, and some were tried in military courts for collaboration. Bidoon refugees who had fled the country during the war were prevented from returning. Others were held and mistreated in overcrowded detention centres. Moreover, approximately 10,000 Bidoon were deported. As a result of all these measures, the population of Bidoon in Kuwait was reduced from a pre-war population of approximately 250,000 to only around 100,000.
Those who remained in Kuwait found themselves treated as illegal residents in what was for most the only country they had ever known. The government ceased issuing Bidoon identification documents, and pressured them to reveal their ‘real’ nationalities in order to regularize their status and qualify for legal work permits. Many Bidoon opted to purchase fake foreign passports from offices that sprung up all over the country in the 1990s for this purpose, a process that appears to have taken place with the knowledge and even the encouragement of the Kuwaiti government. Many found that their possession of a foreign passport, even an illegitimate one, was later used to undermine their claims for Kuwaiti nationality.
The overall attitude of the Kuwaiti authorities to Bidoon has changed very little since the 1990s. The government has asserted that Bidoon enjoy human rights on an equal basis with nationals of Kuwait but it continues to refer to Bidoon as illegal residents, and paints them as opportunistic foreign nationals who have destroyed their original documents in order to stay in Kuwait and take advantage of the provisions of the welfare state. Although a minority of those calling themselves Bidoon may fall under this category, it is certainly not an accurate description of the majority.
Consequently, there has been little progress on naturalization, despite repeated promises. A law passed in 2000 permitted the naturalization of Bidoon and their descendants, provided they could show that they were registered in the 1965 census, thereby proving that they were in the country at the time of independence. However, it has been reported that only a small number of Bidoon were able to acquire nationality through this process, and these were predominately those with wealth or connections. The yearly quota of 2,000 naturalizations, as stipulated by the law, was never met.
The situation of the stateless Bidoon population is exacerbated by Kuwait’s restrictive nationality laws, through which citizenship is usually transmitted through patrilineal descent. As a result, children of Bidoon parents do not have any claim to citizenship, despite being born in Kuwait. Moreover, children born to Kuwaiti mothers and Bidoon fathers are also considered Bidoon, except in cases of divorce or death of the father.
Some Bidoon, especially those in possession of 1965 census papers, have been able to obtain green-coloured identity or ‘reference’ cards (bitaqaat muraja’a). Others, whom the government considers to have foreign origins or whose backgrounds need to be investigated further, have received yellow or red cards. The ‘reference’ or ‘identification’ cards can be used for limited purposes, such as registering for private schools or health insurance. They are not, however, comparable to the civil ID cards issued to Kuwaiti citizens and legal residents, and some Bidoon feel that the colour coding system is stigmatizing. On the other hand, Bidoon who have not received reference cards are in an even more precarious situation, being excluded from accessing the most basic rights and facing the constant risk of arrest.
Bidoon with reference cards are required to request permission from the Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status (informally known as the Central System, or Al-Jihaz Al-Markezi, in Arabic) in order to obtain basic forms of civil documentation, such as birth, marriage and death certificates. However, Bidoon who request documentation are often met with refusal on the grounds that the government has intelligence suggesting they have other nationalities. Others have told human rights groups that they faced requests for bribes for the provision of such documentation. Many are then told to ‘resolve their status’ by confirming their other nationality in order to obtain the civil documentation requested. However, by doing so they would forfeit any future claims to Kuwaiti citizenship.
As is often the case in marginalized communities, Bidoon girls and women have been particularly vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. They have faced sexual harassment from government officials while applying for documentation. At the same time, the government has failed to protect Bidoon women, whose marriages are often unregistered, for instance in obtaining their legal rights upon divorce.
Since they are not recognized as Kuwaiti citizens, Bidoon children do not have the right to attend public schools. However, most children are able to receive an education through private schools. The parents are normally expected to pay 30 per cent of the school fees while the remainder is covered by charitable foundations, both public and private. Bidoon families may send girls to school every other year in order to afford to send a male sibling every year. Although this arrangement is certainly an improvement upon the situation of the late 1980s and 1990s, when many Bidoon children, especially girls, were excluded from education entirely, it remains the case that girls are more likely to miss out on education than boys.
It has been pointed out that private schools in Kuwait generally offer a much lower standard of education than public schools. Moreover, until the 2013-2014 academic year, Bidoon were not permitted to attend Kuwait University. Now, the university accepts a maximum quota of 100 Bidoon students per year, but they must have achieved a high school average of 90 per cent and obtain security clearance from the Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status.
Regardless of their level of education, Bidoon face discrimination in employment by virtue of their ‘illegal’ status. Although many government ministries hire Bidoon, this is generally on the basis of ‘remuneration for work’ contracts which offer little job security and none of the benefits provided by law to citizens and expatriate workers, such as paid sick leave, annual leave, and pensions. Moreover, in both the public and private sectors, salaries offered to Bidoon are generally lower than those offered to citizens and expatriate workers. In reality, many Bidoon are forced to earn a living in the informal sector, such as by selling fruits and vegetables on the street. However, since they cannot obtain commercial licenses or own property, they are at constant risk of being arrested or having their goods confiscated for operating businesses illegally.
In terms of healthcare, Bidoon can purchase low-cost insurance plans from the government that allow them to be treated in public hospitals. However, these health plans exclude many types of tests, medications and operations. Moreover, Bidoon without reference cards can be refused care altogether at government hospitals. The only other option for undocumented Bidoon is to attend one of the private hospitals, which are prohibitively expensive for many.
Discriminatory policies towards Bidoon have contributed to the community’s relative poverty and social segregation over the long term. Most Bidoon live in slum-like settlements on the outskirts of Kuwait City, Tayma, Sulaibiyya and Ahmadi where they lack adequate housing and protection from Kuwait’s extreme weather conditions. Although the government constructed low-cost housing units in these areas in the 1970s, there has not been any further development since then, which has led to overcrowding and the growth of shantytowns. Reportedly, suicide rates are high within the Bidoon community.
Following decades of political quiescence, in 2011 Bidoon were emboldened by the Arab Spring to begin protesting their unfair treatment. On 18 February 2011, around 1,000 Bidoon took to the streets to call for citizenship rights. Kuwaiti security forces responded with tear gas, water cannons and smoke bombs, injuring 30 protestors and detaining 50. Some of those detained were subjected to torture, ill-treatment and sexual abuse. Further demonstrations took place in March, May and successive weekends in December. On 7 January 2012, the Deputy Interior Minister declared that Bidoon demonstrations were forbidden, though another was held in July 2012.
However, the Kuwaiti government also made some concessions in an effort to appear to be addressing the protestors’ grievances. Specifically, the government announced a package of 11 ‘privileges’ that would be granted to Bidoon, including the right to register births and marriages, and access to education and healthcare. In practice, however, little has been done since 2011 to implement these promises.
Fifteen Bidoon activists were arrested in July 2019 following demonstrations protesting the death of a young Bidoon who had committed suicide after reportedly struggling to secure official documentation, culminating in the loss of his employment. Five of the 15 detainees were released without bail due to poor health in September 2019, following a court appearance. In January 2020, the 4th Circuit Criminal Court issued its ruling in the case of these 15 defendants plus one further activist living in exile, who was tried in absentia. The Court described the group as ‘illegal residents’, which in itself was a reminder of Bidoon exclusion. Two of the group were sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and forced labour, followed by their deportations. The defendant who was tried In absentia was sentence to life imprisonment. The rest of the defendants were acquitted, although near all had to pay bail as well as hand over the mobile phones and computers that they had been using at the time of their arrest. The arrests and subsequent trial were widely criticized by human rights groups in the region, as violating basic free assembly and free speech rights.
The most basic priority for Bidoon remains naturalization. However, there do not seem to have been any significant advances made in this regard despite promises made in light of the Arab Spring protests. Out of more than 100,000 people registered as stateless in Kuwait, the government considers that only 34,000 qualify for Kuwaiti citizenship, which generally corresponds to those in possession of 1965 census documents. However, even those who by the government’s own admission are eligible for nationality have not been naturalized, to say nothing of others who do not possess the required documents.
Instead, the government announced in November 2015 that 7,000 illegal residents had ‘resolved their status’ by declaring their foreign nationalities and receiving residency permits. However, human rights reports suggest that Bidoon’s alleged foreign nationalities are often based on undisclosed government intelligence, and that Bidoon are pressured into signing documents confirming these nationalities. Kuwaiti academic and human rights activist Ibtihal al-Khatib has stated that many of those who ‘resolved their status’ did so by purchasing fake foreign passports. However, by doing so, they are no longer considered Bidoon and fall out of the responsibility of the Central System, while at the same time not enjoying real protection from any foreign state. This creates a class of even more marginalized bidoon al-bidoon.
The government has set out in detail how members of the Bidoon community would be able to access free medical treatment and education and the discretionary means to be used in order to achieve this. But there has been nothing to suggest that the Kuwaiti government is serious about recognizing the nationality claims of its stateless population. In 2014, it was revealed that the government was in talks with the government of Comoros to provide Comorian passports to Bidoon in exchange for economic incentives, and that Comoros had in fact amended its laws to permit the purchase of citizenship. (The UAE had previously negotiated a similar deal with Comoros with regards to its own Bidoon population.) As the plan goes, with Comorian nationality, Bidoon would be able to apply for legal work permits in Kuwait that would grant them the same rights as other foreign residents. This suggestion has been harshly criticized by human rights organizations and Bidoon themselves, who see it has an attempt by the Kuwaiti government to shirk its responsibilities towards its own population by encouraging them to seek citizenship from a country to which they have absolutely no connection. Moreover, if Bidoon were to acquire foreign nationality, they could be at risk of deportation for committing crimes or even criticizing the government. In August 2016, among other recommendations, the Human Rights Committee called on the Kuwaiti government to abandon any plans to offer economic citizenship in another country in exchange for a permanent residence.
Successive UN human rights treaty bodies have called on Kuwait to end the discrimination against Bidoon, including by ensuring that they have access to social and education services, are granted state documents such as birth certificates, and are able to enjoy their fundamental rights in relation to freedom of expression and association. In September 2017, for instance, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern at reports that Bidoon do not enjoy equal access to social services, due process and legally valid civil documentation. It called on Kuwait to find a durable solution to the problems faced by Bidoon and that applications for Kuwait nationality be assessed through written, reasoned decisions that may be appealed.
According to David Weissbrodt, former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of non-citizens, ‘at the very least, a person should be eligible for the citizenship of the country with which she or he has the closest link or connection.’ The government of Kuwait should offer members of the Bidoon population the opportunity to prove their connections to Kuwait through a variety of means, as it cannot be reasonably expected that all eligible citizens have proof of registration in the 1965 census. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (which Kuwait has not ratified) also calls upon every state party ‘to grant its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.’
In 2012 three international human rights groups, in an open letter to the Amir, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, called on the government to enable Bidoon residents to challenge Central System decisions in court, in order to provide an independent route to recognition as Kuwaitis. Amnesty International went further in 2013 by calling on Kuwait to establish an independent tribunal to access naturalization claims. In October 2012, the then Prime Minister, Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah, insisted that such a process was unacceptable for reasons of state sovereignty. Nevertheless, the proposal has growing currency amongst Bidoon activists in Kuwait.
At the very least, echoing the call of CERD and other UN human rights bodies, Kuwait should amend its nationality laws to allow Kuwaiti mothers to pass their nationality on to their children. The current provisions not only constitute gender discrimination, but lead to untold numbers of children being born stateless.
While claims for citizenship are assessed, Kuwait should take steps to ensure that the basic rights of its stateless population are respected. This should include interim measures to guarantee Bidoon’s access to employment, housing, social services and other rights. In this regard, the April 2017 announcement that descendants of former Bidoon soldiers would once again be allowed to enlist in the armed forces could be seen as a positive development, as it could provide stable and relatively well-paying employment to thousands of Bidoon. Reportedly, the military received 20,000 applications from the Bidoon community within the first three days after the announcement alone. However, the ability to earn a decent living should not be limited to those serving in the military. Bidoon should be given legal residence permits that would allow them to compete for employment in other sectors, as well as access education, healthcare and other services that require identification documents.