The plight of the Bidoon is a six-decade story of a people denied citizenship and stigmatised in one of the world’s wealthiest states.
Imagine a people that inhabit Kuwait who are indistinguishable from the local population. They often mingle with Kuwaitis from similar social backgrounds and speak the same Arabic dialect, albeit with a hint of tribal undertones. Most wear the same attire and accompanying headgear. Foreigners don’t view them as anything but natives.
Yet, they are not legally considered Kuwaitis. They are instead a stateless group of people known as the Bidoons – meaning “without” in Arabic, from bidoon jinsiyya or “without citizenship”.
Kuwait is home to an estimated 100,000 – 200,000 Bidoons, who were excluded from obtaining citizenship when the oil-rich Gulf state first undertook efforts to register its population following independence in 1961.
It is believed up to a third of Kuwait’s population did not register then, not uncommon for the region, says Amal de Chickera, co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.
“In the whole MENA region, you will find more statelessness per capita than any other part of the world,” he tells TRT World.
“In the Gulf, several communities are stateless as a result of what happened at the point of state formation and were not documented by the censuses because they were either unaware or unable to register at the time.”
With an estimated 500,000 people believed to be Bidoon across the Gulf, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it’s a manifestation of a regional problem.
Fundamentally, Kuwait’s Bidoons claim entitlement to citizenship based on the absence of any other state affiliation, whereas the Kuwaiti government considers them illegal residents on its territory.
It declares that only 34,000 of the 100,000 plus stateless population in the country are eligible to apply for citizenship and the rest are natives of other countries or their descendants.
As Claire Beaugrand puts it, the Bidoons are “administratively foreigners but from an ethnic and cultural stock shared by nationals [Kuwaitis].”
History of dispossession
Bidoons fall into three broad categories: those whose ancestors failed to apply for nationality or lacked the necessary documents at Kuwaiti independence; those recruited from abroad (like Iraq, Syria, and Jordan) to work in the Kuwaiti army or police during the 1960s; and children of Kuwaiti mothers and stateless or foreign fathers.
From independence till the mid-1980s the Bidoons’ status was undecided, and they were provided with minimal civil rights that allowed them access to basic services.
By 1986, the state’s policy dramatically shifted. Authorities stripped Bidoons of basic civil rights through the Alien Residence Act, as their status was changed from “legal residents without nationality” to “illegal residents”.
The 1990 Iraqi invasion was another milestone in Bidoon history, as many of them made up the ranks of the Kuwaiti army and were subsequently portrayed as Iraqi collaborators upon Kuwait’s capitulation to Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Upon the culmination of the first Gulf War, a state crackdown resulted in the deportation of thousands of Bidoons, and their numbers were reduced from a pre-war population of around 250,000 to 100,000. Many who fled during the war were denied re-entry into Kuwait after it ended.
Throughout the 1990s, a state policy of rights stripping continued. Authorities ceased to issue identification documents to pressure Bidoons to reveal their “real” nationalities – or push them to seek any other nationality, even fake ones, which many ended up getting.
The Kuwaiti government’s stance has hardly changed since then. One the one hand, it asserts that Bidoons enjoy human rights on an equal basis with Kuwaiti nationals, but simultaneously believes they are foreign nationals who have destroyed their original documentation to remain in Kuwait and leach off its generous welfare state.
In reality, the government has chosen a deliberate “pressure policy” against the Bidoon, says a Kuwaiti PhD researcher and consultant in social justice and international studies, who wishes to remain anonymous.
She tells TRT World that Kuwaiti officials themselves have publicly stated such intentions.
“Mazen Al Jarrah, a former deputy minister in the nationality and passport affairs, said that they are inflicting psychological and social pressure on the Bidoon to force them to reveal their [proclaimed] true nationalities,” she says.
“Of course, there is no evidence or procedure to prove any of these claims are true, and the government has been refusing to refer the cases to court.”
Who is a ‘Kuwaiti’?
A couple of factors underline why the Bidoon have difficulty obtaining citizenship.
One is many are unable to prove residential ties as per the 1959 Nationality Law, according to which “original Kuwaitis” were those who could prove continuous residence in the emirate since 1920. However, this definition favoured the urban population in the city-port of Kuwait, rather than tribes present on the desert outskirts.
That same nationality law also prevents women from passing citizenship to their children, exacerbating the problem “to perpetuate statelessness from one generation to another,” says de Chickera.
There are traditionally two ways that states grant citizenship: by birth on the territory or by descent (which the Gulf states do). For de Chickera, the problem is a lack of legal protections against statelessness.
“In other countries, they also have a safeguard in the law which allows for children born in the country or to parents who are stateless, to acquire the nationality of that country. Kuwait and many of the Gulf states don’t have that kind of safeguard implemented in law,” he explains.
“It’s not a problem of territorialisation of citizenship, but a wider problem of discrimination and failure to protect the right to nationality.”
Since 2008, Kuwait and the UAE have tried to pursue a scheme of “economic nationality,” attempting to purchase citizenships for the Bidoon from the Comoros Islands and other undisclosed states to close the door to naturalisation.
Mohamed Albadry Alenezi describes it as a “corrupt” strategy that is essentially “human trafficking.”
“They wanted to sell us. Two countries tried to make an agreement without our consent,” he tells TRT World, and adds that similar deals were attempted with Sudan, Iraq, Turkey and even Belarus, all which eventually failed to pass parliament.
“They will keep trying, and we will do our best to stop it.”
Deaths of despair
Due to their stateless status, Bidoons face huge difficulties in finding employment, accessing social services, and obtaining civil documents.
Zahra Albarazi, co-coordinator of the MENA Statelessness Network, tells TRT World the plight of Kuwait’s Bidoon as one of “intergenerational suffering.”
“It means living in one of the richest countries in the world but being restricted in their educational possibilities, and the jobs they can do. Getting married can be difficult, and many do not want to start a family in order not to transfer grief to their children.”
The government grants Bidoon security cards that classify them as illegal residents and is not considered proof of ID. Those with security restrictions are issued temporary cards known as “green cards” which can’t be renewed.
These cards are essential for participating in a range of activities (with no benefits), whether it’s applying for temporary work, receiving education or healthcare, or the freedom to travel.
Security cards are only valid usually for six months and renewable at the Central Agency for Remedying Illegal Residents’ Status (CARIRS), established in 2010 to review Bidoons’ citizenship claims.
However, the entity mandates those wishing to renew sign a commitment without knowledge of what will be written on the card – essentially signing a blank, something many refuse to do.
Most Bidoons as a result are relegated to working in the informal sector and dwell in impoverished shantytowns. Unsurprisingly, this systemic discrimination has fostered a deep sense of despair.
On August 6, a Bidoon in his thirties attempted suicide by self-immolating inside a hospital, suffering burns to 60 percent of his body. The man’s lawyer claimed that being denied the opportunity to renew his ID card drove him to kill himself.
It was just the latest in a string of similar incidents that occurred just this year.
In June, 12-year-old Jarrah Al Shammari was run over and killed while selling flowers on a roadside in Kuwait City. A few days later, a 60-year-old Bidoon man self-immolated in an attempt on his life. In February, 12-year-old Ali Khaled hung himself in his bedroom.
The Kuwaiti PhD researcher says there have been at least nine documented suicides, excluding those that failed, in the last year-and-a-half alone.
“Over the years, the damages of [their] dispossession have created intergenerational traumas and consequences which have led many to reach a state of desperation,” she says.
Once the pandemic hit, most of them didn’t have enough money to support their families. “They see them suffering in front of their eyes and can’t do anything,” Alenezi says.
“They don’t have a choice. They have no passport to leave the country. Why are they [the Kuwaiti government] doing this? It’s a crime.”
Discrimination against the community is “rife in the country” warns Albarazi, not just from the authorities but wider society too, with a large portion of Kuwaitis believing Bidoons are not real Kuwaitis, which further drives feelings of hopelessness.
Who will stand up for the Bidoon?
In response to the growing number of suicides, Kuwaiti MPs in June drafted legislation demanding basic rights for the Bidoons.
But following six decades of repeated promises, members of the community and its advocates have little faith the state will eventually pass laws that enshrine their civil rights.
Take for example a law passed in 2000 that permitted the naturalisation of Bidoon and their descendants provided they could prove registration in the 1965 census. The annual quota of 2,000 naturalisations was never met.
Then in 2011, the Arab Spring protests spilled over and thousands of Bidoon took to the streets demanding citizenship rights. It was soon suppressed by state security forces, but the government appeared to make some concessions to address grievances through a package of eleven rights. Little has been done to implement them since.
More recently in 2019 on the heels of multiple suicides, the speaker of the Kuwait National Assembly announced a proposed law amendment for Bidoons that discussed benefits that included education, medical treatment and obtaining ID papers, and stipulated non-Kuwaiti citizens have access to those rights.
Within three months, the jurisdiction committee decided not to endorse the proposed amendment, and it was scrapped.
Amal de Chickera highlights that Kuwait is party to several human rights treaties, and the Bidoon remains a recurring issue when the kingdom is reviewed by UN treaty bodies and recommendations are made, which it routinely dismisses.
“It makes it very challenging when you have a state that is unwilling to recognise there is a problem that is very much of its own making and unwilling to address it,” he says.
On the ground, a few civil society voices have tried to keep the issue in the public consciousness. But it often comes at a high cost.
“There are many freelancers working on Bidoon cases in Kuwait,” Hadeel Buqrais, a Kuwaiti human rights defender, tells TRT World. But many of them have received “direct and indirect threats to drop their case or walk away from it because it is seen as a national security issue, not a humanitarian issue.”
Those who expose human rights violations against the Bidoon are frequently smeared as being anti-Kuwait.
“Most people cannot handle the pressure, especially when they are fighting alone. Some are willing to fight until the end,” Buqrais says.
For now it seems, as for the last six decades, the Bidoon will continue to languish at the margins of society, living as aliens in their own land.