Bidoon (shortened from the term Bidoon jinsiyya and meaning “without nationality” in Arabic) are stateless minorities in Kuwait who, despite being long-term inhabitants of the country, have been systematically denied Kuwaiti citizenship. The government of Kuwait classifies Bidoon as “illegal residents,” though they do not hold any alternative connection to another country. Following decades of suppression, Bidoon are confronted with significant difficulties when attempting to obtain civil documents, education and employment status, healthcare and social services, as well as encountering difficulties with marriage rights and passing their nationality to their children. Despite these struggles, their experience has been largely met with silence from the international community.
The majority of Bidoon came from nomadic tribes native to the Arabian peninsula, and established themselves in Kuwait in 1961 when the country gained independence. However, many Bidoon were unable to register as citizens – thus rendering them as stateless. This was due to legislation set out in the 1959 Nationality Law, where they were subsequently denied citizenship and the privileges that the status afforded to Kuwait’s non-bidoon citizens. Additionally, in 1991 during the Iraqi invasion, some Bidoon sided with Iraq and were consequently rejected from Kuwaiti society, further stoking ongoing national prejudice that was held against them. An estimated one third of the population of Kuwait was previously classified as Bidoon, with the government of Kuwait recently asserting there to be “over 100,000” Bidoon in the country in 2014. Today, there are thought to be as many as 500,000 people recorded as stateless across the Gulf region in total. Yet official numbers of the Bidoon in Kuwait are difficult to ascertain. Some activists claim official Kuwaiti government statistics on the matter are whitewashed, estimating the true number of Bidoon in the country to be nearer 240,000.
Bidoon’s Denied Access to Citizenship and its Consequences
Despite promises from the Kuwaiti government to solve these issues surrounding statelessness, repeated amendments to the Nationality Law have made access to Kuwaiti citizenship progressively more difficult. Since the 1990’s, the government has established various bodies to attempt to process Bidoon individuals. This includes the Executive Committee for Illegal Residents’ Affairs (ECIR), though little progress has been made. In November 2010, Kuwait set up the Bidoon Committee, which announced a five-year-plan to resolve the issue by granting Bidoon “facilities” and supposedly granting nationality status to those entitled to it. However, their process of naturalisation is complex due to subdivision within Bidoon communities, and evidence presented by Amnesty International suggests this has had very limited success. Furthermore, Bidoon have increasingly been targeted by authorities through mass arrests, detention, and general societal persecution.
Kuwaiti mothers are also unable to pass on their citizenship to their children under the law because of their gender. It is estimated that roughly 4,000 Kuwaiti citizens are married to Bidoon husbands, with their families comprising more than 20,000 people in the country. Of that total, 16,000—the husbands and children—are considered Bidoon under Kuwaiti law. The children of Kuwaiti mothers married to Bidoon or to foreign fathers are regarded as Bidoon unless they are allowed the citizenship of the foreign father, in which case they are regarded as foreigners. Since a Bidoon father has no nationality, his children are automatically considered Bidoon, regardless of the nationality status of the mother. Kuwait’s Nationality Law also gives the Ministry of Interior discretionary power to grant such children Kuwaiti citizenship only in the event of the father’s death or the dissolution of the marriage.
Bidoons are classified by the government as illegal residents, and they are not issued with a form of civil identification, driving license, or travel documents. They are therefore unable to travel abroad without the risk of being denied to entry back into Kuwait. A specialised entity within the Kuwaiti state department deals with regulatory issues surrounding Bidoons and renews their security cards, yet these do not count as proper proof of identity and can only be used for limited purposes. They also use a color-coded system, which many Bidoon feel is stigmatising, although refusal to use these cards bars them from accessing the most fundamental rights and places them at a constant risk of arrest. Security cards must be displayed when requesting basic documents, such as birth and death certificates, but Bidoons often face refusals, threats, or bribery demands when attempting to obtain their documentation.
Since 1986, thousands of Bidoon have not been able to enjoy state services that require national IDs. Instead, the Bidoon’s temporary documents are only renewable according to the goodwill of the Kuwaiti government. As a result, hundreds of Bidoon possess no documents and often have to rely on charity to survive. Due to their discrimination, Bidoon who are able to work in the public sector accept lower wages and poorer terms of employment than Kuwaiti citizens. They are often forced to pay higher fees for essential medical care they cannot obtain at state facilities. In addition, Bidoon parents must also send their children to private schools, which generally provide a lower standard of education compared to the public schools their children are denied the right to attend. Parents similarly struggle to afford their children’s required schooling fees, even when supported by charities, and it is common for girls to be excluded entirely from receiving an education in order for boys to attend full-time.
Examples of Discrimination: Education and Marriage
In the field of higher education, Bidoon face constant discrimination and an uncertain future. Until 2014, Bidoon were not allowed to attend Kuwaiti Universities. Even today, if offered one of the limited places recently made available, they must have achieved at least a 90% grade average and obtain security clearance from the Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status. While this is the case for children of Bidoon parents, Refugees International published a report stating that children of Kuwaiti mothers and Bidoon fathers could access public education up to the age of eighteen. Once the child reaches eighteen, these privileges are lost and they are considered Bidoon, immediately losing their right to higher education and confronted with potential deportation if they fail to secure a work permit or employment.
The discriminatory experience of Bidoon in Kuwait is further exacerbated by the unofficial procedure they have to go through in order to get married. While Kuwaiti citizens have the privilege of following straightforward and uncomplicated procedures, Bidoon are usually prevented from legally recognized marriages due to their lack of civil documents. However, there is one degrading way in which Bidoon may be recognised as married, which is through the false confession of adultery to the police. Although they are innocent, the documentation of a woman committing adultery compels a general recognition of marriage, in view of the fact that the majority of Kuwaiti society traditionally follows the Islamic faith, and such a confession of adultery is inherently shameful.
The Effects of Statelessness: State Persecution and Suicide
The discrimination which Bidoon face on a daily basis, such as the frustration of being denied civil documentation and consequent rejection from education and employment, has led to several cases of suicide. In July 2019, Ayed Hamad Med’ath, a 20-year-old Kuwaiti Bidoon, ended his life as he was unable to bear another rejection from a job due to his legal status. Authorities repeatedly denied the young man civil documentation which is the basis of being able to get employment or access to education and public services. Instead of taking this suicide as a tragic trigger to finally change the discriminatory system, the Ministry of Interior rejected all responsibility for his death and framed the event as the result of the young man’s addiction to drugs and his criminal activities. In response to Med’ath’s death, activists organised a peaceful sit-in to raise awareness of the issue. However, instead of letting the activists hold this peaceful gathering in accordance with their right to assembly and free expression, the authorities arrested the organizers of the protest prior to the event.
Among the individuals who were arrested there was the prominent human rights defender Abdulhakim al-Fadhli. This was his second arrest after authorities detained him in 2012 due to his human rights activism. After his second arrest on 12 July 2019, prior to the peaceful sit-in organised to raise awareness on the circumstances of Ayed Hamad Med’ath’s death, Al-Fadhli was detained for seventeen days in isolated confinement. In the first three days after his arrest, authorities interrogated him without giving him the opportunity to contact his lawyer. Following his isolation, he was transferred to the Kuwaiti Central Prison where he awaited his trial scheduled for 14 August 2019. He was finally released from prison on 28 January 2020, after he had paid a caution of approximately 3,000 EUR (approx. 3,300 USD).
Al-Fadhli was not the only one whom the authorities interrogated in context of Med’ath’s death. At least seventeen other Bidoon rights defenders were arrested without warrants prior to the planned peaceful sit-in. They were accused of being a threat to national security by spreading fake news, organizing illegal gatherings, as well as harming allied countries and abusing cell phone use. During their time in prison, some of the activists started a hunger strike to gain attention to the issue of statelessness in Kuwait. The hunger strike lasted for twelve days, and came to an end because of the worsening health conditions of some of the detainees. Several NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), have called on the Kuwaiti authorities to immediately release their Bidoon rights’ activists who are held without “recognizable” charges, which is against international law. HRW also noted that the authorities’ response by arresting activists imposes more restrictions and coercion on Bidoon communities, rather than respectfully addressing the issue by amending national law.
In November 2019, a few months after Ayed Hamad Med’ath ended his life, two other Bidoon, Bader Mirsal al-Fadhli and Zayid al-Asami, separately committed suicide. Both men had openly expressed their frustration of being stateless in Kuwait. Their suicide might have also been a reaction to the presentation of Kuwait’s new legislation draft in early November 2019 directed at Bidoon communities. The draft stated that each Bidoon must declare their original nationality within one year in order to obtain citizenship. However, persons who do not provide a nationality from another state will be declared “illegal residents” and thus prevented from applying for Kuwaiti citizenship. In view of the fact that many Bidoon in Kuwait have no known connection to another country, this bill did not propose a realistic solution to the problems of many Bidoon—namely their access to legal recognition.
Response from the International Community and Kuwait’s Failed Obligations Under International Law
Despite Bidoon’s ongoing suffering, the international community remains silent on their mistreatment in Kuwait. In the third Universal Periodic Review of Kuwait, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, only seven of the participant organizations broached the matter of the statelessness of Bidoon. Similarly, just twelve countries made recommendations to Kuwait regarding this issue. Only Norway—with Recommendation 157.302—clearly recommended that Kuwait should provide full citizenship and rights to their Bidoon population. Other countries’ declarations, such as France’s Recommendation 157.297 which stated that Kuwait should continue its efforts to provide nationality to Bidoon, were far more lenient. Moreover, there are limited provisions in adopted resolutions at the international level which stress the human rights violations committed against the Bidoon.
Despite the many denunciations made by human rights defenders and NGOs, neither states nor the United Nations have sanctioned or condemned these violations of international law concerning the status of stateless persons in Kuwait. This is in spite of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Kuwait is a state party, prohibiting discrimination based on national origin or statelessness status. Furthermore, the 1961 Convention on statelessness established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) aims to guarantee the right of every person to a nationality. It requires states to provide safeguards in their nationality laws to prevent statelessness at birth and later in life. The Convention also accounts for the very limited situations in which states may deprive a person of their nationality even if it would render them stateless. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of non-citizens has stressed that “every person should, by virtue precisely of his or her human nature, enjoy all human rights,” including the right to education and medical care, with only a few “acceptable exceptions” according to international standards.
Kuwait needs to effectively address the issue of Bidoon in the country, granting them the human and political rights they are currently lacking. Remaining stateless in Kuwait ensures that not only are Bidoon prevented from accessing basic facilities to live, but are actively discriminated against by the wider Kuwaiti society – essentially living as second-class citizens. Their presence in Kuwaiti society is also a breach of international law, as nation states have a duty to prevent statelessness. The Kuwait government needs to end its practice of persecution against the Biddon people and grant them citizenship in order to stop any further suffering of its people and their children.