In a public gathering in his electoral district in early November, the speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly, Marzouq al-Ghanim, gave details about a proposed new law aiming to address the critical issue of the status of biduns, or stateless people. The new law will be discussed in the current parliamentary session, which began October 29. Ghanim has asserted that by implementing the new law “there will not be any biduns in Kuwait after one year,” assuring Kuwaitis that it would permanently resolve the issue. The law requires biduns to declare their original nationalities within a year, then apply for citizenship. In the meantime, they will be granted renewable permanent residency for 15 years and will have access to free health care and education, in addition to the right to work, among other benefits. However, those who do not declare their original nationalities will be treated as illegal residents and will be prevented from applying for Kuwaiti citizenship.
The gathering came a day after two biduns, Bader Mirsal al-Fadhli and Zayid al-Asami, committed suicide in Kuwait. Both had expressed grievances against the authorities in the country. Fadhli posted short videos on social media complaining about injustice in Kuwait, and in a WhatsApp conversation with his son, Asami asserted that he was “very humiliated.” Fadhli and Asami were not the first biduns to attempt or commit suicide. On July 6, Ayed Hamad Medath, a 20-year-old bidun man, committed suicide, and the reaction of the authorities generated considerable criticism. The Ministry of Interior sought to deflect responsibility for his death by announcing that he had been a criminal and drug addict. Later, 15 bidun activists were arrested for protesting and blaming the government for his death. They began a hunger strike while in jail. It lasted for 12 days and was ended because of the deteriorating health conditions of some detainees, according to a statement they issued on Twitter.
The Origins of the Bidun Problem
The bidun community in Kuwait formed over decades. Many people from among the nomadic tribes that lived in the desert in and around Kuwait failed to register as citizens under the Nationality Law of 1959 – many did not recognize the importance of doing so or did not have the ability to travel to Kuwait City to register. Additionally, it is difficult for a Kuwaiti woman to pass on her citizenship to her children if their father is bidun. The government asserts that others among the bidun came to the country later and claimed to be part of this community by hiding their original documents.
There are no clear statistics regarding the size of the bidun population. However, based on numbers provided by the authorities, the population is estimated at just over 100,000. Before the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91, the population was thought to be as high as 220,000. Many biduns left Kuwait at that time to go back to their countries of origin, although a significant number of them stayed in the country during the occupation, with some taken as prisoners of war or killed by Iraqi forces. Their numbers have declined for other reasons as well. The authorities say that more than 8,000 biduns declared their original nationalities and became foreign residents in Kuwait between 2011 and 2016. Others were naturalized.
In the eyes of the state, there is a distinction between the biduns who arrived in the country before 1965 when the authorities conducted a census and those who came after. Based on a law passed by the National Assembly in 2000, this first group, which today includes about 34,000 people, could be naturalized. However, confusing and contradictory statements are made by the authorities regarding the process of naturalizing this group. For example, Saleh al-Fadhalah, a former parliamentarian with a leading role in bidun affairs, claims that not all members of this group have this right. The former assistant undersecretary for nationality and passport affairs in the Ministry of Interior, Mazen al-Jarrah al-Sabah, claims the government formed a committee to evaluate these files, and its initial findings indicated that only 8,000 of them could be naturalized. These statements contradict what the current crown prince, Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah, asserted in 2005 when he was the interior minister that those belonging to this group would be naturalized unless they had committed crimes. The same law requires the government to naturalize 2,000 biduns every year, but the government has not reached that target. The government agreed to naturalize up to 4,000 people in 2019, but again it has the ultimate discretion over how many it will naturalize.
A Change in Tactics
For a long time, members of the bidun community were treated similar to Kuwaitis in access to education, free health care, and government employment, often within the security forces. This changed in 1985-86 when the government began denying them privileges in order to force them to declare their suspected underlying nationalities, abandon their attempt to gain Kuwaiti citizenship, and register as foreign residents. Since then, biduns claim that their conditions have worsened.
In 2010 the government established the Central System for the Remedy of the Situation of Illegal Residents led by Fadhalah. Since then, bidun activists have asserted that it has become harder to obtain or renew the security card they need to work, study, or get a driver’s license. Some biduns claim that they have been forced to sign documents admitting that they are citizens of another country in order to get their IDs, thereby surrendering their demands to become Kuwaiti citizens. Without renewed IDs, biduns cannot apply for birth certificates for their newborn babies, their children cannot attend schools, health care is not provided to them, and they are not permitted to work. Recently, the government ordered the central bank to freeze the bank accounts of biduns who do not have their security cards. However, the head of the central bank ordered banks to allow biduns who do not have valid IDs to withdraw their money from their bank accounts and then close them.
Fadhalah claims that the Central System has accumulated, in cooperation with other ministries, about 5 million documents issued since the 1960s that allow it to trace the original nationality of about 87,000 people. For example, if a father applied for a birth certificate for his newborn baby in the 1960s, indicating that he was Iraqi or Syrian, his grandchildren today should be Iraqis or Syrians and would have no right to Kuwaiti citizenship.
The government encourages the biduns to declare their original nationalities and promises to grant them permanent residency, free education, free health care, and food subsidies that are provided to Kuwaitis. However, it is often difficult for biduns to obtain documents that go back 30 or even 50 years from countries like Iraq and Syria that have been suffering from civil wars. Faced with this dilemma, some biduns have bought passports from other countries such as the Dominican Republic and Liberia. However, many of them, without knowing, bought forged passports, and therefore were unable to renew their permanent residency in Kuwait.
As time passes, it will be harder to solve this problem. The bidun community is becoming larger as a result of the natural birth rate. Today, the third generation of biduns is living in the country, they have become more organized, and have won the support of Kuwaiti human rights advocates. A new organization, Platform for the Defense of the Biduns in Kuwait, was recently formed by three activists: Ebtehal al-Khateeb, Fahad al-Mutairi, and Lama al-Othman. In addition, the Human Rights Committee in the National Assembly forwarded legislation in February to give biduns civil and social rights similar to Kuwaitis, and for them to be granted permanent residency in Kuwait. Moreover, the Kuwaiti Lawyers Society has proposed a law aiming to resolve this problem as well. Unlike Ghanim’s proposed law, this legislation would require the government to immediately naturalize a portion of the biduns, including those who have been in the country since 1965, children with Kuwaiti mothers, and children of bidun martyrs. Biduns who were in Kuwait between 1965 and August 1, 1990, when the country was invaded by Iraq, would be given permanent residency for 10 years and then naturalized. Those who do not fit within these two groups would only be given permanent residency.
However, advocates for the biduns may be outnumbered by those who support the government’s policies, which are seen as protecting “Kuwaiti identity.” Some people reject naturalizing the biduns because they believe a significant number of them are Shia Muslims or because of concerns that their tribal background will demographically change the country.
There are also economic issues behind their concerns. The Kuwaiti economy relies on oil as a main source of revenue, and since its independence in 1961, the country has used this revenue to provide services to its citizens. Kuwaitis enjoy free education and health care and are granted employment by the government. Therefore, adding thousands of new citizens by naturalizing the biduns might make it difficult for the government to meet its commitments to the existing pool of citizens.
The bidun issue is complex, touching on identity, economics, and politics. Thus far, the government’s campaign has not convinced many of them to declare their countries of origin. Moreover, faced with pressure from the Central System and the lack of opportunity, the younger generation of biduns is growing angrier. Protests such as those that took place after Medath’s death may become bigger and more commonplace, and Kuwaitis may begin to think of the status of the biduns not as a social issue but a security problem. Ghanim’s prediction of solving the problem within a year is very optimistic. First, Kuwaiti society as a whole will need to accept the proposed changes. Then, if the new law is passed, the bidun community will need to accept it and cooperate with the authorities to implement it. If these two things do not happen, the situation of the biduns and the politics surrounding potential solutions will remain complicated.