Kuwait stateless protest for citizenship
Friday, January 6, 2012
Stateless Arabs, locally known as bidoon, protest outside Kuwait`s parliament.
“Kuwait Stateless Protest for Citizenship” -- NOW Lebanon Headline
More than 4,000 stateless people in Kuwait demonstrated on Friday for the fourth week, insisting that the only solution to their plight is by getting Kuwaiti citizenship and other human rights.
“There is no solution without citizenship,” read one banner carried by the protesters in Jahra, northwest of the capital Kuwait City, who rallied peacefully as riot police looked on.
The crowd, which was the largest so far, carried hundreds of Kuwaiti flags and pictures of Kuwait`s ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, insisting that they are Kuwaitis and should be granted citizenship.
Last week Interior Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Humud al-Sabah announced that the oil-rich Gulf state was preparing legislation to grant citizenship to stateless individuals who fulfilled certain criteria.
The stateless, locally known as bidoons, claim the right to Kuwaiti nationality, saying that their ancestors failed to register for citizenship when the government began registration five decades ago.
Kuwait has long said that most of the 105,000 bidoons or their forefathers destroyed their original passports to claim the right to citizenship in order to gain access to the services and generous benefits provided to citizens.
In a bid to force them to produce their original nationality papers, Kuwait has denied them essential documentation, including birth, marriage and death certificates, according to a report in June by Human Rights Watch.
About 52 stateless men are on trial over protests while 32 others have been interrogated and freed on bail.
(Description of Source: Beirut NOW Lebanon in English -- A privately-funded pro-14 March coalition, anti-Syria news website; URL: www.nowlebanon.com)
© Compiled and distributed by NTIS, US Dept. of Commerce. All rights reserved.
Kuwait Less than Bidoon
Friday, May 28, 2010
Stateless Arabs, locally known as bidoon, protest outside Kuwait`s parliament in 2008. Human Rights Watch has urged Kuwait to improve its treatment of foreign domestic workers and stateless Arabs a day after its rights record was examined by the United Nations
The Arabic word “bidoon,” meaning “without” and short for “bidoon jinsiya” (without citizenship), is used to denote longtime residents of Kuwait who are stateless and, according to government figures, presently number about 93,000. Lack of legal status impacts all areas of life for bidoon: their identity, family life, mental and physical health, residence, education, livelihood, political participation and freedom of movement.
Bidoon in Kuwait, like stateless people in other parts of the world, often find themselves caught in a costly cycle of buying their way out of situations for which they bear no responsibility. When dealing with government civil administration offices and providers of services, exchanging money or other favors can determine if or when they may be able to acquire citizenship or legal residency. People who lack basic citizenship rights are forced to make compromises, whether it`s in the form of using another person`s name to buy a home or maintain a business, or purchasing a passport with an unlikely national affiliation.
In fact, there is a brisk business in counterfeit passports in Kuwait, from countries like Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia and the Dominican Republic. With a foreign passport, stateless bidoon can obtain a five-year residency permit and enjoy the privileges that Kuwait grants its guest workers, including free education and health care.
In late April, Refugees International returned to Kuwait to continue our efforts on behalf of Kuwaiti bidoon. We were alarmed to learn some 5,000 stateless bidoon who have been forced to go undercover after using false documents in order to access to basic public services.
RI met a house-bound family in the Jahra neighborhood who told the story behind their current situation and described the plight they now face. Like many of the bidoon, the father had served in the Kuwaiti army. As the years passed and their citizenship still was not recognized, a member of the family purchased a fraudulent passport. When the document expired and the family tried to re-establish their former status as stateless residents, they could not do so. Out of fear of getting caught for the years they lived with fake identification, the family has gone `underground” and no one leaves their home.
Friends and relatives help with errands. “We have a car, but no license,” one family member said. “If we get caught, we`ll be put in jail.” Another acknowledged that without income from employment, their financial situation is constrained and said that “funds for healthcare comes from a religious charity.”
While clearly challenged with the tasks of everyday life, the bigger issue is how to solve the problem once and for all. “We tried to go to a lawyer, but we were told we can`t take our case to court,” said one man. “We haven`t tried to call the UN, but if we get caught it would be a problem and we can`t visit the office– maybe they are Kuwaiti police.”
The children of the family are not documented and do not attend school. And they are part of a growing group facing similar circumstances. One of the young women explained tearfully that she and her finance had not been able to marry because of the new situation. “We are less than bidoon now,” the grandmother said. “We`re not even human,” one of her daughters added.
What we witnessed in Kuwait requires a global effort to increase transparency and curtail corruption so that families aren`t forced to seek their own solutions to statelessness—and very often face the tragic consequences.
United Arab Emirates: Nationality Matters
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
It`s been five years now since Refugees International first visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to better understand and then call for solutions on behalf of the country`s stateless population – the bidoon. Since mid-2008 there have been a number of media reports indicating that change was afoot, and that efforts were being made to tackle statelessness through a one-time only special registration process. So, when the possibility popped up of visiting the country last summer, we took it.
What we learned, though, was not exactly what we anticipated to find. There was a real mix of opinions regarding how much these changes had actually helped the bidoon population. On one hand, authorities painted a fairly rosy picture of how the registration process had been rolled out and some of its beneficial consequences, intended or otherwise. The bidoon themselves, on the other hand, painted a far less glowing picture of the same process and its impact on their lives.
I`d really like to be able to take an official`s word as the authority on the matter while getting clarification on some important points. However, it`s not possible to be very complimentary in light of the accounts we heard from people who attempted to undergo the registration process. The words of one young bidoon man protest loudly in my mind.
In the UAE, the bidoon are represented by two major groups– Arabs (from neighboring countries) and non-Arabs (mainly from Iran and the Indian Sub-Continent) whose families settled in the Gulf generations ago as merchants or workers. Exact numbers of the bidoon in the UAE are not generally known and range from 10,000 to 100,000. While they`re not generally subject to deportation, they do face discrimination in the labor market and, as a result, encounter some serious socio-economic challenges. The bidoon have limited access to medical care and education, and without passports and other basic identity documents, their movement is restricted, both within UAE`s borders and internationally.
When I met him, a young man I`ll call Ilir had just gone through the registration process and was eager to resolve his statelessness through legal means. Though born in the UAE, he had not been given a birth certificate. This, despite the fact that the UAE is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which include the right to an identity, registration and nationality.
This family of seven, including Ilir`s parents, had gone together to a designated registration site to pick up a copy of the 14-page application form. Questions included the applicant`s name, nationality, whether the individual had traveled outside the country and to where, if they sent money to anyone outside the country and if so to whom and by what method. Each individual was fingerprinted and videotaped making a statement about themselves. Samples of saliva were collected, and then applicants were sent to another building for an eye scan.
The registration procedure continued with an additional three-step process. Family members were taken individually and asked about their relationship to the people waiting outside the room. In this case, the father of the family had documents providing evidence of residence in the country for several decades. “People who have been in the country longer, should get recognized first,” Ilir suggested.
On the day we met, Ilir said that for all the people he knows who went through the registration process around the same time that his family did, nothing has happened in 80 percent of the cases. He doesn`t know anybody who got citizenship or nationality rights. “The future is not getting better, it`s just unjust and unfair,” Ilir laments. “After people got the new cards from this process, some 40 individuals lost their jobs. My parents couldn`t get healthcare… Other people had problems getting married.”
One of Ilir`s friends, a man who I`ll call Khaled, had come along with Ilir to meet us. I asked Khaled if he knew any stateless people who had been able to solve their problem. He answered affirmatively. When I subsequently asked about whether or how that person`s life had been changed as a result of his newly regularized legal status, Khaled was quick to respond. “Every aspect of his life is different. He got a job, and then a raise. He feels safe and secure.”
Kuwait Still Stalling on Statelessness
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The government of Kuwait continues to balk at granting nationality to its approximately 90,000 stateless residents, or bidoon. Lack of legal status impacts all areas of their lives. Kuwait must begin immediate and transparent reviews of all bidoon cases towards providing naturalization. Meanwhile Kuwait should guarantee the bidoon the right to work and earn equitable incomes, allow their children to enroll in public schools, provide them healthcare free of charge, and issue certificates that record births, marriages, and deaths. With Kuwait about to enter the UN Universal Periodic Review process on May 12, other states have an immediate opportunity to press the country to take these steps to address the statelessness problem.
Statelessness in Kuwait
More than 12 million people around the world lack an effective nationality. Either never having acquired citizenship in the countries where they were born, or having lost it, they have no legal bond of nationality with any state. Kuwaiti bidoon did not become stateless as a result of war, forced migration, or redrawing of borders between states. On the contrary, it was an absence of permanent borders that gave rise, in large part, to the problem of statelessness in the country.
The Arabic word “bidoon,” meaning “without” and short for “bidoon jinsiya” (without citizenship), is used to denote longtime residents of Kuwait who are stateless and, according to government figures, presently number just over 90,000. Many bidoon are descendants of Bedouin tribes that roamed freely across the borders of present day Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq. But because their ancestors failed to understand the importance of citizenship or given their centuries-old way of life they did not want to belong to any one country. Others were living outside the city walls or were illiterate. As a result, they did not or could not apply for nationality, though the majority had and still have legal documents that prove settlement in Kuwait earlier than the establishment of the state. Bidoon are indistinguishable from citizens, sharing a common language and culture.
The country`s 1959 Nationality Law defined Kuwaiti nationals as persons who were settled in Kuwait prior to 1920 and who maintained their normal residence there until the date of publication of the law. Approximately one third of the population was recognized as bona fide citizens, the founding families of the country. Another third was naturalized and granted partial citizenship rights. The remaining third was classified as “bidoon jinsiya.” Even now families include members who are citizens and others who are bidoon.
Bidoon once made up the bulk of the armed forces and police and served their country loyally. They believed that eventually the government would extend them citizenship. Bidoon were included in the 1965 government census, indicating they were considered Kuwaiti citizens.
After 1985, however, the government took a number of punitive steps to destroy the hope of citizenship. Bidoon were dismissed from their jobs, children were barred from public schools and driving licenses were revoked. They could no longer carry passports (known as Article 17 passports) unless they left the country and renounced the right to return.
Bidoon soldiers proved their loyalty again during the Iraqi invasion; a large number of bidoon were among the casualties and prisoners of war. But after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the government stepped up its effort to strip their rights. Bidoon were fired en masse from positions in the military and police, and only a small fraction was rehired. They could not collect severance pay unless they produced a passport, either Kuwaiti or foreign, or left the country. Tens of thousands of bidoon who fled the country or were forced to the leave were not allowed to return. Prisoners of war who returned did not receive a hero`s welcome. One widow told RI, “My husband didn`t get his job back. And when he passed away the Ministry of the Interior reclaimed the house. Our children can`t even study.” Families of dead soldiers cannot claim a father`s indemnity due to their failure to present a death certificate.
Moreover, an atmosphere of intimidation continues to plague the community. Most bidoon do not feel they can freely express themselves for fear of losing the little they have.
The social cost of denying human rights
In Kuwait, nationality is deemed a matter relating to sovereignty and courts cannot review sovereign actions of the state. Accordingly, the bidoon cannot petition the courts to have their citizenship claims adjudicated. Furthermore, citizenship in Kuwait is passed to children through their fathers, not their mothers. Thus, the children of a Kuwaiti woman and a bidoon husband are bidoon. Sometimes even the child of a Kuwaiti father and bidoon mother is also bidoon. Laws in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, which grant mothers the right to pass on their nationality to their children, could serve as models for revisions in Kuwait`s law.
Lack of legal status impacts all areas of life for bidoon: their identity, family life, mental and physical health, residence, education, livelihood, and political participation. The problem starts at birth. Bidoon children are not given a birth certificate. Under ordinary circumstances, a birth declaration is meant as a temporary document to be taken to the Ministry of Health and exchanged for a birth certificate. Stateless children in Kuwait, however, generally cannot obtain a birth certificate because their parents are not given marriage certificates. In some cases, parents have been strong-armed into declaring a nationality in order to obtain birth certificates and other civil registration documents.
The Convention of the Rights of the Child states that every child has the right to an identity. But when a bidoon father pulls out a copy of his child`s birth declaration, any observer can immediately see the problems. The child`s name is not indicated on the document, and any information regarding the child`s national identity, place of birth, and parents` names is either non-existent or has long since faded. One parent said, “Our children are not part of this world.”
Without birth certificates, children are barred from free education in public school. Parents must pay for private, poorer-quality schooling. A child of a divorced Kuwaiti woman or widow can acquire some nationality rights, including education, so there is a theoretical incentive for couples to divorce to guarantee their children`s future. In reality children of such broken families are not able to secure the intended benefits. Without birth certificates, children cannot apply for passports. Hence, families with a Kuwaiti father or Kuwaiti mother cannot travel together with their children, nor can the parents leave their children behind and travel.
Kuwait fails to take advantage of the valuable labor pool available in the bidoon population. Instead the workforce is largely composed of foreign workers. Because formal employment is precarious and only possible through “favors,” bidoon seek jobs in the underground economy: selling produce on the street, for example, and in some cases even turning to prostitution and the drug trade. Those who are employed face wage disparities with their citizen counterparts. While some individuals may manage despite everything to acquire resources through great personal initiative and exertion, these are quickly depleted through paying privately for services they do not receive from the state and supporting extended families with similar costs. Healthcare, including dental services, offered free of charge to citizens is withheld from them. They can not own property in their own names.
Bidoon in Kuwait explain that there is a vested interest on the part of traders and merchants to maintain the status quo, which accounts for some of the labor market problems they face. In reality, stateless people have much they could contribute to the societies they live in. An enlightened and forward-looking government policy would provide identification papers and work permits to all eligible persons, and permit access to training and education. The goal must be to prepare the stateless persons to render the best possible service to their homeland and the society in which they reside. “But we even need permission to dream,” one man said.
Statelessness threatens both national and global security
When a sovereign government determines its requirements for citizenship and then denies or withdraws citizenship to persons residing within its borders it creates marginalized groups of people. Such individuals subsist in the shadows and avoid to the extent possible contact with the government and its record keepers out of fear and distrust. National security is compromised as a result, particularly as people seek their own solutions, often by crossing international boundaries in an irregular and uncontrolled fashion.
Without the bonds of citizenship stateless individuals face denial of subsidiary human rights as noted above. And because governments are frequently unwilling to seek solutions to the plight of stateless people, they muddle along with half-measures that create an underclass often exploited politically and economically. The situation can be, and has been, compared to a game played with great sophistication by the country`s leadership, but the pawns are the lives of real people.
The surest guarantors of national, regional, and global security are inclusive and equal access to civil rights and services and the prevention of discrimination based on ethnicity, religious affiliation, or gender. No government, including those with large numbers of stateless persons within their borders, can remain as one scholar put it, “silent and sitting.” A European representative likened the situation to air quality. He explained this analogy saying, “What one country does affects us all.”
The darkest corners need the brightest spotlights
Despite Kuwait`s general progress, such as the notable inclusion of women parliamentarians for the first time in 2009, the human rights problem of statelessness has yet to be addressed in a meaningful way. As one individual expressed, “Reform in Kuwait is like a journey of a thousand steps, and we are only now beginning to lift the big toe of the left foot.”
A key contributing factor to the perpetuation of statelessness is the lack of transparency in the process of trying to adjust one`s legal status. Stateless people often find themselves caught in a costly cycle of buying their way out of situations for which they bear no responsibility. When dealing with government civil administration offices and providers of services, exchanging money or other favors can determine if or when they may be able to acquire citizenship or legal residency. Stateless people are forced into making their own compromises, using another person`s name to buy a home or maintain a business or purchasing a passport with an unlikely national affiliation.
The pattern of corruption is self-perpetuating. Individuals benefitting from it obviously have a strong incentive to maintain the status-quo. Corruption, fed by the desperation of stateless people, is probably one of the more difficult symptoms of the problem to correct. But it is the symptom, and statelessness is the disease.
Global efforts to increase transparency, curtail corruption, and reduce the production of fraudulent travel and identity documents should be broadened to address the underlying causes, and include investigations of the workings of citizenship/naturalization boards. Efforts should be made, ideally through an internationally mandated process by an inter-governmental institution, to study and document the benefits accruing to governments (or to powerful individuals within them) that fail to find and effectively promote solutions to statelessness within their territories.
Plugging the holes
As in other parts of the world statelessness in the Middle East region is a sensitive matter, and when the topic is mentioned a full range of feelings is expressed. One Kuwaiti admitted, “A lot of us think we are superior because we have money.” Another explained, “We can not give nationality to all these people”. One man said, “Some want to give all people citizenship but others would grant it to none of them.” Another admitted, “I am afraid for the wealth and identity of Kuwait. We have to get rid of them.” Fear and greed appear to prevail in Kuwait, and the problem is only getting bigger.
To date, the human rights mechanisms have failed to make a dent in Kuwait`s situation. In 1999, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) highlighted its concern that, in spite of efforts, the Government of Kuwait had not found a solution to the problems of bidoon. The Committee recommended that the state party find a solution to the problems faced by the bidoon and ensure the enjoyment of their rights without any discrimination, in accordance with articles 2 and 5 of the Convention.
In 2008, the Committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child recommended Kuwait establish a comprehensive data collection system in order to ensure that data, disaggregated inter alia by age, sex, minority groups, vulnerable children, including migrant children and stateless children, are systematically collected and analyzed for measuring policy implementation. The Committee encouraged Kuwait to seek the assistance of UN agencies and programs, including UNICEF. The Committee also recommended that Kuwait continue and strengthen education and training on the provisions of the Optional Protocol as well as strengthen measures to disseminate the provisions of the Optional Protocol, with priority given to migrant children and stateless children.
Court decisions related to civil documents as well as to matters related to access for handicapped persons have not been implemented. Proposals in Kuwait`s Parliament to honor civil and social rights of the bidoon, practically equivalent to citizenship, are at a standstill. And recently the situation of the bidoon was swept into yet another body, a Parliamentary Planning Committee, for further study and resolution. “The country spends millions on development projects,” one person said, “Can`t they solve the bidoon situation?”
Just a few weeks ago during her late April 2010 visit to the country, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, met with Kuwaiti officials, UN representatives, and with members of the Kuwait Human Rights Society, but no one introduced her to a single Kuwaiti bidoon. The system continues to fail stateless people.
Nationality by any other name
Some say there is general agreement in Kuwait that the humanitarian consequences of statelessness should be addressed immediately, leaving the contentious issue of citizenship rights to a later date. At the same time, however, many Kuwaitis acknowledge that the problems associated with statelessness will escalate. Refugees International believes it is possible to move forward on two tracks simultaneously.
Kuwait must begin immediate and transparent reviews of all bidoon cases towards providing naturalization. Numerous bidoon are able to furnish ample proof of their families` presence in the country for several generations and their loyalty to Kuwait, as well. Their applications for citizenship deserve consideration. Meanwhile Kuwait should guarantee the bidoon the right to work and earn equitable incomes, allow their children to enroll in public schools, provide them healthcare free of charge, and issue all persons certificates that record births, marriages and deaths.
At the same time the country should undertake a tolerance campaign to address discrimination in the society at large. This cycle of statelessness with its inherent indignity and insecurity is already taking its toll on the next generation. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” and “What is worse is what you don`t see,” RI was often told.
There is a way out, according to one interviewee. His Highness the Emir of Kuwait could recognize the humanity (as well as the human capital) of the stateless population and make a historic decree granting them nationality. “The people of Kuwait will acknowledge this act,” the same individual noted. Kuwait is a small country between three big ones that have advantage in terms of population size. “It is in Kuwait`s strategic interest to have more citizens.” There is no better time than the present.
Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives Maureen Lynch and consultant Charlotte M. Ponticelli traveled to Kuwait in April to assess the situation for bidoon there. This report also relied on information from consultants Patrick Barbieri and Michael Scott.