Most of us take the right to citizenship for granted. It is a fundamental human right after all. Yet, in Kuwait, this is debatable.
When I worked at a now-defunt "Canadian" school in Kuwait between 2007 and 2008, it took three months and a rather unpleasant four-day trip to Bahrain -- the "Disneyland" of the Gulf" -- before I could get my civil ID (like a social insurance number). Without a civil ID, I could not get a cell phone contract or internet connection, get a driver's license, open a bank account or travel outside of Kuwait. At times, it felt like I could barely go to the toilet without a civil ID.
Such is the case of the wretched Bidoun -- Arabic for "without" and short for bidun jinsiya (without citizenship) -- who, despite having lived and died side by side with Kuwaiti citizens for generations, live their entire lives without this all-important document. Conversely, my colleagues and I, who were only in Kuwait to work for a year or two, were granted a civil ID within three months, yet griped on a daily basis about how long it took and what an inconvenience it was. Little did I know about the deplorable plight of the stateless Arabs.
The approximately 100,000 stateless Arabs of Kuwait are descendents of nomadic herders who did not become registered for Kuwaiti citizenship when the independent state was formed in 1961. Human Rights organizations say that the ancestors of the Bidoun either failed to understand the significance of citizenship or, given their traditional nomadic lifestyle, preferred not to belong to any one country. Others were living outside the city walls or were illiterate, so they did not or could not apply for nationality. However, the majority had and still do possess legal documents that prove settlement in Kuwait earlier than the establishment of the state.
Despite this fact, the Bidoun remain stateless and, as such, are unable to get proper jobs, enroll their children in public schools or have access to Kuwait's free health care system. Not being registered as citizens or having a civil ID also means they cannot rent or buy property, get a driver's license, register a car, travel outside the country or obtain birth, marriage and death certificates. In other words, they have no rights because they don't exist.
I was shocked to learn of this situation while living in Kuwait. How can people not have citizenship rights in their own country? How can someone not have a nationality? It was unfathomable to me.
I recently discovered that the approximately 100,000 Bidoun of Kuwait are not the only ones. There are Bidouns in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq as well. Moreover, there are apparently about 12 million stateless people around the world, people like the Kurds in Iraq , the children of Haitian migrants in the Caribbean, some Palestinians, some ethnic groups from the former Soviet bloc and certain groups in Thailand. In the Middle East, the situation in Kuwait is particularly disgraceful since it did not happen as a result of a war or changing geographic boundaries but, it seems, out of pure malice.
Ironically, though I was born and raised in Canada and have lived more than half of my almost half century on earth in this country, I have always felt that this wasn't where I should have been born. I've always wished I had British or European nationality, or perhaps Australian because of its bright desert sun, blue skies, endless white beaches and laid-back culture. But being able to live and work anywhere in Europe was my real dream. Still, though I wanted to trade in my Canadian citizenship for a European one, I knew I had it to fall back on should anything go wrong. The sad fact is that I've always taken my Canadian citizenship, one that millions would sell their souls for, for granted. How would I feel if, despite being born in Canada and my French-Canadian ancestors having been here for more than three hundred years, had no nationality, no country to call my own, no birth certificate, no state identification or passport, and no right to a state education or health care? What would it be like to "be without"?
Sharing a common language and culture, the Bidoun are indistinguishable from Kuwaiti citizens. Except that they are usually much poorer than the average Kuwaiti. Most Bidoun live in tin-roof shacks in squalid neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Kuwait City, a jarring contrast in an oil-rich nation where the majority live in ostentatious luxury and where, in January, all citizens received from the emir yet another grant, this time in the amount of 1,000 KD ($3,570) as well as free essential food items until March 2012.
Why are the Bidoun treated this way? Because in the mid-1980s, after decades of enjoying the same privileges and services as citizens, the government decided to strip them of their identity and declare them "illegal residents". According to the authorities, the stateless Arabs of Kuwait are actually citizens of neighbouring countries who are deliberately concealing their true identities to cheat the Kuwaiti government and reap the benefits of its generous welfare system. With all due respect, Your Highness, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, are you for real?
It's no surprise, then, that amid the vociferous demands for meaningful democratic change that have blown across the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa, the Bidoun of Kuwait have also jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon. Last week, during the weekend of Friday the18th, hundreds of Bidoun staged peaceful protests to demand their rightful due: citizenship and basic human rights. Each time, the police fired water canons, rubber bullets, tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse the protesters who refused to leave. Many were arrested, and more than thirty people were injured during the first day's demonstrations. It seems some died of their injuries, but the authorities deny this. Many protesters still have not been released.
The government says the recent demonstrations were illegal and that what happened last weekend was "unacceptable", stating there are more "appropriate" ways to ask for something. The stateless Arabs were also told last week to "be patient", that something would be sorted out. The Bidoun have been asking and waiting patiently for decades. How much longer should they be expected to wait quietly?
"The authorities, they say 'why don't you leave? Why do you spend your life in Kuwait with nothing?'" said a stateless Arab named Abu Abdullah. "But we have no passport. We can't leave. This is our only country." (as told to Christine Koningisor in The Atlantic, February 19, 2011).
What must it be like to "be without"? I imagine that statelessness would be much the way Refugees International describes it, "a corrosive, soul-destroying condition that can colour almost every aspect of a person’s life."
Nationality is a basic human right and a foundation of identity, dignity, justice, peace, and security. To be denied citizenship in one's own land is to make one vulnerable, unable to defend oneself against injustice as well as to deprive one of what makes him or her a human being. To be ignored, excluded and invalidated, to be forever "without", must be like being denied a life.
Koningisor, Christina. "Protests Spread to Kuwait Over Rights of Stateless". The Atlantic, February 19, 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/protests-spread-to-kuwait-over-rights-of-stateless/71481/#
Kuwait Times. "Amir grants KD 1,000 to every citizen"
January 18, 2011
Kuwait Times. "Interior handling bedoon issue with transparency". http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=MTQwMTg4MjY4Mg==
February 24, 2011
McLean, Jesse. "Life in Kuwait too good a deal for revolt". Toronto Star http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/940130--life-in-kuwait-too-good-a-deal-for-revolt February 16, 2011
Refugees International. "About Being Without" http://www.refugeesinternational.org/policy/in-depth-report/about-being-without-stories-stateless-kuwaitUNHCR. "10 Stories" http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/07/theexcluded.shtml
NB: The Kuwait Times is not necessarily a reliable source, but I've used it here to show what's being written in English in that country. I'm actually surprised at how much they've actually been able to get away with. Many articles have no byline, some articles seem to be from AFP, others from staff writers but often there is no name. Interestingly, the articles that were somewhat more risqué and honest about the protests eem to no longer be posted on the site.