In the past three years, the total number of people facing a travel ban in Kuwait has reached 239,911.  In 2015 alone, Kuwaiti authorities ordered a total of 182,397 travel bans. Kuwait General Department of Sentences Enforcement statistics show that officials issued 22,616 travel bans during the first quarter of 2016. These bans make it impossible for those affected to legally leave the country. While Kuwait’s neighbor, Bahrain, has been recently utilizing travel bans to curb the political activism of those that the government sees as dissidents, Kuwait mainly uses the practice to ensure its citizens and residents alike make payments on their loans and fees they owe to the state.

In 2012, unpaid state fines amounting to over 12 million KWD caused the Government of Kuwait to implement travel bans against those in debt and those with criminal charges lodged against them. The joint effort between the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry stipulated that indebted offenders would have one year to pay back the money they owed the state. If they could not meet this deadline, they could face arrest and imprisonment. The conditions of the travel bans, which came into effect 2 January 2013, immediately affected over 100,000 Kuwaiti nationals and residents. The bans can only be lifted by paying the pending dues, being acquitted for charges, or for humanitarian reasons. Many of the fines on which offenders have defaulted are valued at less than 100 KWD. Kuwaiti courts have issued bans for debts as small as 20 KWD.

Kuwait’s travel bans affect both citizens and expatriate workers. Kuwaiti employers can manipulate the terms of the bans to exploit migrant laborers. Forced labor is widespread within the country. Due to abusive working conditions in Kuwait, many nations have banned their citizens from travelling to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state. When workers in Kuwait do attempt to escape the abusive conditions, the employers report them to government authorities for absconding, leaving the workplace without permission, or for other low-level crimes, such as theft. These charges are a sufficient basis for Kuwait’s travel bans. Ensuring their workers cannot leave the country enables Kuwaiti employers to continue exploiting forced labor.

Kuwait’s fellow GCC member, Bahrain, has recently amped up its usage of travel bans to suppress human rights defenders, activists, and journalists, such as Nabeel Rajab and Nazeeha Saeed. Travel bans remain a weapon that Bahrain wields as reprisals against those it deems threatening. Kuwait’s widespread use of the bans is already relatively normalized within society. Given the closeness between the two GCC states, the international community must keep a watchful eye on how Kuwait is using these bans. It must act to ensure that Kuwait does not further encroach upon the civil liberties of its denizens.

The widespread and arbitrary nature of Kuwait’s travel bans is problematic in a region known for using similar tactics to silence and repress free speech and free expression. While Kuwait is currently only ordering bans for those with charges against them or those indebted to the state, the state widely interprets these stipulations to include false charges and negligible debts. The Government of Kuwait needs to reevaluate the necessity of its travel ban policy in order to better protect and respect the human rights of those residing within its borders.

Brittany Hamzy is an Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB.