Only three months in and 2012 is already bearing witness to significant developments for the Bidoon issue in Kuwait, a situation that has been left unsolved for decades. This community, numbering over 100,000, is a stateless group who, despite living in Kuwait for decades, are not considered its citizens. They suffer from difficulties accessing a range of basic rights, including obtaining ID certificates, access to public education, health care, housing and employment. Additionally they have no recourse to the state’s judicial system.
Last year (2011), in February and March, many members of the Bidoon community took to the streets to demand full citizenship. This was the only large-scale protest to take place in the gulf region amidst the ongoing MENA uprisings. This tumult then calmed, until December last year when the protests were resurfaced.
The response by the Kuwaiti authorities was two-fold. On the one hand, there were brutal attempts to quell the protests. Riot police were deployed – with tear gas, water cannons and batons reportedly used. Many Bidoon were believed to have been injured and hundreds arrested and detained. The government then threatened to deport stateless people who took part in the protests. Other punitive measures included dismissing Bidoon from the army and the police force if they or their children had taken part in the protests, and threats were made to evict them from welfare housing. The government also decided to confiscate security IDs from any Bidoon protesters - documents that constituted their only form of identification. It is now believed that the ‘occupy the parliament’ campaign, where hundreds of mainly Bidoon demonstrators stormed the parliament, will be used against those who participated who might face years in jail.
At the same time, the reality of the need for steps to be taken to address the issue became clear to the Kuwaiti government. Saleh Al Fadhalah, the head of the inaptly named Central Agency for Illegal Residents that is mandated to deal with this issue, stated that they were to commence working on the cases of approximately 34,000 stateless people who they feel could qualify for citizenship. These, it was announced, would include, amongst others, children of Kuwaiti women, individuals serving in the army and police, and relatives of Kuwaitis. The degree to which this might be implemented, the identification procedure, the exact criteria and the naturalization process are all yet to have been established. So, although this is a potentially positive move, by ignoring the majority of the community it clearly falls short of what is needed to resolve the full problem. It also changes the angle from discriminating against the Bidoon to discriminating between the Bidoon as to who deserves to be naturalized and who doesn’t.
One of the consequences of these actions and the ambiguous reactions is that there has been increased international interest in the issue. The UK has sent a committee to observe developments, as has the US State department. The UN has also taken a more vocal stance than has been seen in the past. UNHCR’s Director of International Protection, Volker Türk, visited the country to discuss developments with the authorities. He highlighted the importance to national interest of resolving the issue, stating that ‘if you stabilize a population, if you fight inequality, if you stop segregation and you try to integrate a whole population, it benefits the entire society.’ The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also issued a statement relaying its most recent concerns regarding Bidoon issues, pointing in particular to the low rate of naturalizations, and the fact that basic human rights violations, such as access to adequate services, are commonplace among the population.
Alongside this however the national reaction to the developments is interesting. Coupled with growing involvement from civil society on the issue, the Kuwaiti media has been increasingly vilifying the Bidoon community in their news reports. There are, for example, continual and amplified reports on crimes being committed by Bidoons, with the fact that the individual involved is a Bidoon always being stressed.
Where to now?
Over the past year, the Bidoon have seen protests, a storming of parliament, detention, threats of deportation and promises of citizenship, while very few have actually been naturalized. What needs to be looked at now, besides all these events, is what concrete initiatives may come from all this and whether there is any real scope for positive next-steps.
The month of March has witnessed the issue slowly but seriously moving into parliamentary debate sessions. One session was dedicated purely to addressing the issue with a Prime Minister ‘grilling’ opportunity. A Kuwaiti MP stated that this discussion on the Bidoon was needed in order to ‘grant them their basic human rights and preserve their dignity,’ statements unheard of before the recent protests. The same MP, Mubarak Al-Waalan, also asserted that ‘we need to pass a law that give Bidoon their civil rights to better their living conditions and to improve the image of Kuwait’s people, leadership, and parliament.’ On March 20th the parliamentary debate focused on the claim that some Bidoons are citizens of other countries but are hiding their documents to enjoy the privileges come with being Kuwaiti. Although the approach seems negative, as Bidoons have been excluded from benefits of Kuwaiti citizenship for decades and the burden of proof of distinguishing hidden citizenships lies with the authorities, at a minimum the fact that such a discussion taking place is a step in the right direction for the government.
To date, events have been unfolding rapidly and at times with real promise in Kuwait, yet without a clear picture of actual change. The Rapporteur of the Kuwaiti Human Rights Committee, MP Mohammed Hayef has stated that the next meeting with Saleh Al-Fadala will be on April 8th. Here, he states, the next question that will need to be addressed by the head of the Central Agency for Illegal Residents is for him to present a clear plan on how he will naturalize or provide ID documents to the 35,000 individuals alluded to. It is hard to interpret whether this means the plans are progressing or merely being delayed by these discussions. It is up to the international watchdogs that have taken an interest, to ensure that sight is not lost of the majority of Bidoon who are being left out of even this debate. The worry, especially as there seems to be a disjuncture between national and international sentiments on these questions, is that this debate will just be a prolonged discussion that eventually loses momentum again without bringing about the much-needed and long-awaited change. Stay tuned for new installments as we continue to follow this issue closely…
Zahra Albarazi, MENA Statelessness and Nationality Project Coordinator, Statelessness Programme