By Elizabeth Warkentin
Most of us take the right to citizenship for granted. It is a fundamental human right after all. Yet, in Kuwait, this is debatable.
Amidst the vociferous demands for democratic change that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks, the Bidoun – Arabic for “without”, as in “without citizenship” – of Kuwait have also jumped onto the revolutionary bandwagon. At the end of February, about 1,000 Bidoun staged peaceful protests to demand citizenship and basic human rights. The police dispersed the protesters with rubber bullets and water cannons. Though the government has promised reforms, the stateless Arabs are not yet convinced. Last Friday, a few hundred Bidoun gathered on the streets again, only to be fired at with tear gas.
When I worked at a school in Kuwait between 2007 and 2008, I would see some of these unfortunate souls on the way to school. Each morning, the men, their faces unsmiling, their eyes like lead, would be standing in their dirty galabeyas around an abandoned lot of sand and rubble waiting for someone to offer them menial work.
In my first months in Kuwait, I did not have legal status. It took three months to get my civil ID giving me official residency status. Without a civil ID, I could not get a cell phone contract or internet connection, 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, who, despite having lived and died side by side with Kuwaitis for generations, live their entire lives without this document. Conversely, my Canadian colleagues and I were granted a civil ID within three months, yet griped daily about how long it took and what an inconvenience it was. Little did I know then about the deplorable plight of the stateless Arabs.
The approximately 100,000 Bidoun are descendents of nomadic herders who did not become registered for citizenship when the independent state was formed in 1961. Human Rights organizations say 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 has legal documents that prove settlement in Kuwait earlier than 1961.
Nevertheless, 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 legal residents also means they cannot rent or buy property, travel outside the country or obtain birth, marriage and death certificates. In other words, they don’t exist.
Sharing a common language and culture, the Bidoun are indistinguishable from Kuwaiti citizens. Except that, unlike Kuwaitis, most live in squalid tin-roof shacks, a jarring contrast in an oil-rich nation where the majority lives in ostentatious luxury.
In the mid-1980s, after decades of enjoying the same privileges as citizens, the government decided to declare the Bidoun “illegal residents”, claiming they are actually citizens of neighbouring countries concealing their identities to cheat the government and reap the benefits of its generous welfare system. It’s hard to imagine anyone could believe anything so ludicrous, let alone say it.
The Kuwaitis wonder why the Bidoun don’t just leave, why they spend their lives with nothing. With no nationality, no passport, how can they leave? Where would they go?
How soul-destroying it must be to be excluded and invalidated as the Bidoun are. To be denied citizenship must be like being denied a life.
Citizenship is a right, not a privilege. Democratic nations around the world should be working with the UN to put pressure on Kuwait to guarantee that the Bidoun are granted Kuwaiti nationality.
– Elizabeth Warkentin contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.