By Emma Judkins
Kuwait is experiencing a human rights crisis that is affecting 10% of its population. An estimated 93,000 to 180,000 people have not been granted their citizenship and now subsequently live a life of disenfranchisement and discrimination. This is bringing great instability to the region.
Being from the UK, and having never lived in the Middle East, when I initially thought of Kuwait, vast deserts, souks and oil came to mind. Yet, as is often the case in the region, extreme inequality and devastating human rights violations are rife. This is captured in the paradigm of the Bidoons – a stateless ethnic group who did not receive citizenship after Kuwait’s independence in 1961. The Kuwaiti government grossly underestimates the Bidoon population figures. Even more worryingly, they dismiss many Bidoons as illegal residents who want access to privileges that only Kuwaiti citizens can enjoy.
Let us first understand how this situation came about. There are three main explanations for why such a large community have not received their citizenship:
- The Bidoons did not realise that they needed to register for citizenship after 1961 or lacked the necessary documentation at the time.
- Some settled in Kuwait after being recruited to work in Kuwait’s security forces during the 1960s (many risked their life in the military or police for the very country that refuses to recognise their citizenship) and subsequently stayed with their families.
- Children of Kuwaiti mothers and stateless/foreign fathers. Nationality is only passed down through the father. So, if a Kuwaiti woman has a child with a Bidoon man, the child is stateless.
As a result, the number of Bidoons has significantly increased over the past 50 years and will continue to do so. This issue cannot continue to be ignored by the international community, particularly when it can be solved so easily.
But how important is it to have citizenship? Whilst researching this topic, it soon dawned on me that without citizenship you really have no freedom, prosperity or rights. You cannot get a birth certificate, marriage certificate, driver’s license, access to education, access to healthcare, no freedom to travel… the list continues. Moreover, you really have no proof of existence. Umm Walid, a 43-year-old Bidoon widow, told Human Rights Watch that she has no paperwork that proves her relationship to her deceased husband. “[When] a Bidoon dies, there is no death certificate, [so] there is no proof that I even had a husband.”
Such a lack of freedom is even more frustrated when juxtaposed with the social benefits of having a Kuwaiti citizenship. Kuwaiti citizens have subsidised mortgages, free education and free healthcare. Let us not forget that Kuwait owns the sixth largest proven oil reserves in the world; it will forever shock me that this wealth has not been used to alleviate everyone in its population from poverty.
We simply cannot let this injustice continue for the next generation of helpless Bidoons who continue to be denied their rights.
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As the population of Bidoons grows, so does the likelihood that deep resentment and division amongst the Kuwaiti people will resurface, and probably with a bloody outcome. We must not forget that it was the economic hardship in Tunisia that made Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight and the subsequent Arab Spring. The first major protests for citizenship in Kuwait by the Bidoon took place just after the Arab Spring. In March the same year, the Kuwaiti government, who used excessive force and tear gas, quickly suppressed further protests.
The Kuwaiti government’s response is entirely inadequate. The most recent development offers the Bidoon’s the ‘economic citizenship’ of Comoros, a small collection of islands 185 miles off the Mozambique coast. This gives the Bidoons immigration status in Kuwait, allowing them access to health and education. We are yet to see the outcome but families run a huge risk of deportation – foreign citizens, particularly those deemed by the government as not true Kuwaiti people, can be told to leave the country at a moment’s notice. These are native people – they should be able to live peacefully in their country, paying into a system and receiving the right support and benefits.
So, what’s next? Human Rights Watch compiled a report with recommendations to the Kuwaiti government. Such recommendations would not be hard to carry out and would change the lives of so many people, therefore it is my greatest hope that they will be enforced. We, as an international community, must raise awareness of the plight of the Bidoons so that these changes are forced into effect.
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Emma is reading International History and Politics at the University of Leeds and has recently completed a year abroad studying at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She has taken a great interest in Model United Nations and debating, and has since attended the AFI Changemakers Right to Development Summit 2014 at the United Nations, Geneva. She believes that as a part of a new generation that has never been so interconnected, understanding each other’s cultures is key for the longevity of peace and stability.