Kuwait's stateless Bidoon community faces rising human costs
People in Kuwait are once again calling on their government to grant the country’s Bidoon community citizenship after two devastating incidents in the past fortnight.
Two weeks ago 12-year-old Bidoon child Jarrah Al Shammari was run over and killed by a car while selling flowers in a road in Kuwait City, and days later, a 60-year-old Bidoon man attempted to end his life by self-immolation.
Bidoon is short for bidoon jinsiyyah and refers to those in Kuwait who are without citizenship, rendering them stateless. Classified by international human rights organizations as a minority group, the Bidoon are mainly composed of nomadic tribes who had always lived in and around Kuwait, but upon the country’s independence in 1961 and subsequent registration of its population as Kuwaiti citizens, they failed to get registered. It is believed that up to a third of Kuwait’s population at that time did not register.
"Despite the fact that the Bidoon people have always lived in Kuwait, the government classifies them as “illegal residents"
Social media users in Kuwait took to Twitter using the hashtag "al bidoon awaliyya" or “the Bidoon are a priority” to express their dismay at the ongoing neglect of their government to address the absence of citizenship and rights that they believe is a direct cause for a growing number of deaths of the Bidoon people.
However, members of the Bidoon community and Bidoon advocates believe that this is just a temporary uproar that will not result in any definitive action.
“People have taken it upon themselves to blame the parents [of Jarrah Al Shammari] and not the systemic discrimination of the Bidoon in Kuwait which is literally sponsored by the government. After discussing it with a lot of people in my circle it really disappoints me that we [as a society] view this death as another statistic that we can talk about when we want to make a point about the death of a Bidoon person,” says Batoul, a member of Kuwait’s Bidoon community.
The lack of commitment from the Kuwaiti government to grant the Bidoon citizenship or permanent residency has resulted in many living in dire circumstances which Bidoon advocates believe has directly caused a recent increase in suicides and attempted suicides, including that of children.
In February 2021 12-year-old Ali Khaled hung himself in his bedroom, and last year there was a string of suicide attempts by young Bidoon men who were denied employment.Despite the fact that the Bidoon people have always lived in Kuwait, the government classifies them as “illegal residents.”
Unable to gain citizenship, the Bidoon face obstacles in all aspects of life – they are unable to obtain identification documents, find employment, access state healthcare or state education, or obtain the social benefits granted to Kuwaiti citizens.
Many live in conditions of poverty, and some have been able to find informal work. A small portion of the Bidoon population have been able to buy other nationalities, and if they have the financial means they go to private hospitals and educate their children at private schools.
“We thought that the suicide of Ayed Med’ath in 2019 and shortly after that the suicide of Badr Mirsaal were already the worst things that could happen to the Bidoon,” explains Khaledija, an anthropology student and advocate for the Bidoon community.
“Badr’s suicide was very painful - he chose to wake up in the morning, have breakfast with his mother, ask if she needs anything and then he went to a public park near a children’s play area where he committed suicide. Nothing happened after that - the children’s area was not cordoned off and children resumed playing there a couple of days later.”
According to the Bidoon community and its advocates, the hardest part has been the government’s refusal to understand that the deaths by suicide are a result of the Bidoon’s absence of rights and socio-economic agency. Rather, those who have died by suicide or have attempted to end their lives have been accused of trying to ruin the country’s reputation.
“The Kuwaiti government is aware of the growing number of Bidoon people committing suicide,” Dr Fayez Alfayez told The New Arab. “In the beginning the government was trying to reduce the critiques by labelling these people with false accusations such as that they committed suicide because they were under drugs, or due to mental health issues.
Thanks to lawyers in Kuwait who managed to get medical reports to certify that these people weren't under [the influence of] any drugs neither were they suffering from any mental health issues, they used these reports to sue the Kuwaiti government to stop this immoral practice.”
"Kuwaiti society is divided, a large portion believes that the Bidoon are not real Kuwaitis and do not deserve the nationality, and others believing that the Bidoon are not eligible for naturalisation, but should be granted permanent residency"
Following events in the last two weeks, Kuwaiti MPs have drafted legislation demanding basic rights for the Bidoon people, but after six decades of promises and draft laws, members of the Bidoon community and activists have little faith that the government will actually pass and implement those laws.
It is believed that there is still around 100,000 Bidoon people in Kuwait, of which 30,000-40,000 are eligible for naturalisation, but little has been done in the way of even granting those deemed eligible Kuwaiti nationality. Many believe that this lack of action is in fact the government’s lack of desire to naturalise the Bidoon.
“To be honest there is no answer that may be clear enough to explain the reasons why the resolution of the Bidoon issue in Kuwait has been disrupted to this day, but they are deeply rooted in the composition of the modern state and its historical extensions, and racial and discriminatory reasons that lead decision makers to refuse to recognize the citizenship of a stateless group,” explains Bidoon activist Hadiya Al Onan.
“[There are also] economic reasons, as capital owners benefit from the cheap employment of Bidoon people. The issue of stateless people in Kuwait cannot be separated from the struggle for economic equality. If the Kuwaiti government wanted to adopt a solution to the Bidoon case, it would have adopted the Law of the Bar Association, which we as Bidoon activists agreed upon and its justice.”
When it comes to the topic of naturalisation of the Bidoon people, Kuwaiti society is divided, with a large portion believing that the Bidoon are not real Kuwaitis and do not deserve the nationality, and others believing that the Bidoon are not eligible for naturalisation, but should be granted permanent residency so that they may access healthcare, education, and find stable employment.
According to Khadeija, it is only a small portion of Kuwaiti society that sincerely believes that the Bidoon should be granted the nationality.
“The majority of Kuwaitis believe that citizenship is not necessary for the Bidoon or that it’s a right for all of them. They are convinced that most Bidoon people are pretending and are not rightful; they think there’s no such thing as not having a nationality and they say the Bidoon people must know their nationality and should solve their own problems. This is not logical talk. Only a small portion of Kuwaitis actually sincerely support the Bidoon people.”
“It depends on who you talk to – and who those people are talking to,” adds Batoul. “If I ask them and they know that I am Bidoon they are probably going to give me a softer answer, like ‘yes we are with giving you your rights, but not everybody deserves to be Kuwaiti,’ which is funny, because you are giving me my rights, but let’s talk about the right of citizenship, that is my right, why are you not including that within the rights that I deserve…as if being Kuwaiti is something that you deserve, not something that you are born into by chance. People view it as a privilege and not as a right.”
"They [the Kuwaiti people] are convinced that most Bidoon people are pretending and are not rightful; they think there’s no such thing as not having a nationality and they say the Bidoon people must know their nationality and should solve their own problems"
As Kuwaiti MPs continue to go back and forth over draft legislation and general public opinion continues to not be in favour of naturalising the Bidoon community, activists predict that things will only continue to decline.
“I believe the situation will certainly get worse, and the psychological conditions that this dispossession led to are only getting worse as we are currently witnessing a surge in Bidoon suicides,” says Areej, a scholar and activist. “The political, social and economic situation in Kuwait overall is not too well, and corruption is growing, which makes the government less likely to look at the Bidoon given that on a good day it doesn’t, let alone during a critical time like a global pandemic, economic crises, and political unrest. If anything, it uses it as an excuse to avoid addressing the issue.”
While the country waits to see whether or not the government will pass this latest set of draft legislation, what is evident is that any further inaction will result in a rising cost to human lives.
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA