Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Bedoons in Kuwait: A Crisis Hard to Solve

Bedoons in Kuwait
Hundreds of stateless Arabs, known as bidoon, demonstrate to demand citizenship and other rights as Kuwait’s elite anti-riot police uses tear gas to disperse them in Jahra, 50kms west of Kuwait City, on March 11, 2011. YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

The Bedoons in Kuwait have suffered for decades from marginalization and exclusion, in addition to being treated as foreigners. Until now, this GCC country refuses to grant them any privileges similar to those granted to citizens. At the end of August 2021, the controversy surrounding this crisis reappeared with the spread of news about depriving the Bedoons of incentives given to the frontline healthcare workers to confront COVID-19. This incident became viral on Twitter, as the hashtag #The_Ministry_of_Health_deprives_the_Bedoons got the attention of a broad segment of the people of Kuwait. The controversy about what the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health did, escalated until the National Assembly asked for holding a discussion session about it.

Controversy in the National Assembly

The National Assembly held several discussions regarding how the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health distinguished Kuwaitis from the Bedoons. In addition to expressing dissatisfaction, deputies of the national assembly criticized what they considered tampering with the reward. According to them, it would be like denying those who deserve the reward from it. Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai quoted some deputies depicting the decision as a morally “new failure” as the ministry deprived its members of the Bedoons of the reward while granting it to expatriates and Kuwaitis.

It is a new crisis experienced and suffered by the Bedoons in Kuwait. However, these are the long-time residents of this GCC country without being able to get Kuwaiti citizenship. Some of them were born to Kuwaiti mothers and had relatives who hold citizenship. Moreover, most of them come from families who had previously settled in Kuwait long ago, especially in the period leading up to declaring the independence of Kuwait in 1961.

The 1954 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person (Bedoons) as a “person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” According to Amnesty International, the Kuwaiti authorities have denied the Bedoons citizenship rights for 50 years in the country where they were born and knew no other. During that time, the Kuwaiti government classified them as either non-Kuwaiti or unidentified citizens. After that, the authorities began to treat the Bedoons as illegal residents.

Before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Bedoon population were between 220,000 and 350,000. Nevertheless, this number decreased to 95-110 thousand by 2010, according to many data sources. The decline is due to the policy of pressure and displacement pursued by the government. Nowadays, the Bedoons make up only about 4% of the population of Kuwait compared to 40% of Kuwaitis, and the rest comes from different nationalities. According to the National Democratic Institute, around 100,000 Bedoons live in Kuwait as a result of the exceptional policies pursued by the Kuwaiti government at the naturalization level, despite that the bulk of the Bedoons settled in Kuwait many generations and decades ago, and they are sometimes more rooted than citizens themselves.

Hard Life

The Bedoons in Kuwait lead a difficult life. According to Amnesty International, the Bedoons have to accept work under poor conditions and wages lower than citizens because of the discrimination. The Bedoons often pay higher fees than citizens for medical care since they cannot benefit from state facilities in this sector. Some Bedoon parents have to send their children to fee-paying schools due to denying them from public sector schools that are free for citizens, despite the existence of a state-sponsored fund to finance education from which Bedoon families can benefit.

Out of despair, some Bedoons had no option accept buying forged foreign passports to regularize their residency status in Kuwait. Their inability to renew passports led to further marginalization and deprivation of their rights. Violence, repression and arrest were often the answer to their protests.

Since 1986, the government has stripped the Bedoons of their right to benefit from all public services, including free education, housing, and health care, and made them exclusive to citizens. They also live in shabby and neglected neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Kuwait City, in contrast to the luxurious homes of Kuwaitis. In addition, nine suicide cases of the Bedoons occurred by 2020, including a child, due to difficult living conditions and wasted dreams.

A loyalty crisis?

Bedoons in Kuwait
Scores of stateless Arabs, known in Arabic as bidoon, demonstrate on the Iraq-Kuwait border demanding entry to the oil-rich emirate and threatening to take up arms 04 October 2000. Meanwhile, Kuwait dismissed the protest as a propaganda stunt. The Iraqi organizers claimed the protesters numbered about 1,000 and Kuwaiti troops and police, already in the area, have been put on maximum alert. Kuwait says 102,000 bidoon live inside the emirate today, down from 225,000 prior to the Iraqi invasion in 1990. KARIM SAHIB / AFP

Some consider that one of the factors that led to the troublesome position of the Bedoons in Kuwait is accusations of disloyalty. During the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, some of the Bedoons provided Iraq with aid. On the other hand, other Bedoons preferred to stay to defend Kuwait or leave it and go to Saudi Arabia. Is it a matter of loyalty, then?

According to Al-Jazeera, the Bedoons were equal to Kuwaitis from the independence of Kuwait in 1961 until 1991. Most of them had jobs in the army and police before the Iraqi invasion in 1990. However, they lost those jobs after the expulsion of the Iraqi forces in February 1991.

According to the government, most Bedoons hide the documents of countries of origin to obtain Kuwaiti citizenship and enjoy benefits granted only to citizens. To prove that, the government pointed out that thousands of Bedoons submitted identity documents of neighbouring countries by which they acquired the right of residence or citizenship in Kuwait. In addition, the government fears that the naturalization process will disturb the ethnic and sectarian composition of the country. The government also argues that the country’s area, population, and political, social and economic conditions do not allow large-scale naturalization for anyone who wishes to do so. Such a thing necessitates granting citizenship according to “measured doses that ensure the harmony of society and the preservation of its components”. Interestingly, the government has exploited the sectarian aspect to evade solving the problem. According to the ICSFT, the government has deluded Sunni MPs that most of the Bedoons are of the Shiite sect, and if they are naturalized, the voices of Shiites will be louder in Kuwait.

The excuses of the government are many. They include contradictions and violations of articles from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Kuwait ratified in 1996. This contradictory character is visible in the Kuwaiti constitution. For example, Article No. 29 states the following: “People are peers in human dignity and have, in front of the law, equal public rights and obligations. There shall be made no differentiation among them because of gender, origin, language or religion.” Article 31 also states that “No person shall a subject of torture or ignominious treatment.” However, the government violated this proposition on 18 February 2011 by arresting about 120 peaceful protesters. Thirty people also needed medical treatment on that day. In May 2012, security forces used batons and armoured vehicles to disperse a gathering of Bedoons, and Kuwaiti human rights activists witnessed these violations and documented them. However, the authorities continued their violence against peaceful protesters, using water cannons, tear gas and beatings, to break up the demonstrations of the Bedoons who demanded their rights, and the issue is still the same.

Attempts to solve the crisis

Between 1993 and 1996, the Kuwaiti government formed a group of official committees to deal with the Bedoons problem and find ways to solve it. The list includes the Executive Committee for Illegal Residents’ Affairs. The government asked the committees to take the necessary executive measures to address the Bedoons situation. According to a study by the National Assembly in 2014, the committee recorded the Bedoons data on a computer system. Moreover, the committee created a complete database about the Bedoons with their numbers, years of residence, original nationalities, etc. The National Assembly issued in 2000 a law to annually naturalize two thousand of the Bedoons who have resided in the country since at least 1965.

The Central System for the Remedy of Situation of Illegal Residents was established in 2010 by an Emiri decree, which made it not subject to the legislative and monitoring authority by the National Assembly. Such a move allows this body to violate the constitution and laws. It also allows it to bypass the three powers. This apparatus applied a policy of divide and rule, as it classified the Bedoons into four categories, each category given limited privileges, which led to the creation of sensitivity within those categories, in violation of Article 29 of the Constitution that we mentioned, and the problem and protests are continuing.

Kuwait publicly rejected 19 recommendations presented within the Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council on the Bedoons issue, confirming that they obtain their full rights and creating a mechanism to process citizenship requests following international standards. According to the council, Kuwait’s refusal makes this policy of racism a danger that tarnishes the image of this Gulf state. The UN Human Rights Council advised Kuwait to avoid following that approach, in addition to renouncing all laws based on racial discrimination against the Bedoons. It also urged Kuwait to grant the Bedoon their rights and speed up neutralizing 34.000 people that meet the legal requirements. The council also considers that such disregard and procrastination in the Bedoons issue does not suggest that the Kuwaiti government takes the matter seriously. Amid all these attempts that did not bear fruit, it does not seem that the Bedoon crisis will be solved in the medium or even the long term, especially since the Kuwaiti government still places this issue among its priorities.

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