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Stateless in Kuwait
by Mona Kareem
How misconceptions feed injustice
In this report, Mona Kareem explains the plight of an estimated 100,000 people in Kuwait without citizenship.
When I was 11 years old, a Kuwaiti woman who lived next door asked me where I was from. I answered innocently “I am from Bidun”. She laughed at me and replied:
“There is no country called Bidun.”
I learnt that bidun is simply the Arabic word for “without” and that is how my people are known in our country - as people without a homeland.
My mother, who didn’t know how to explain to a young child what it means to be a bidun, said rather harshly that “people say we do not belong here."
Statelessness is perhaps one of the most neglected issues in the world. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that statelessness affects more than 12 million people across the world.
But because governments do not recognise these citizens-of-nowhere, there are no reliable records of the number of stateless individuals across the globe, and the number may be significantly more.
Millions of people are living with no records, documents, education, health, or employment. The UN states:
“Possession of nationality is essential for full participation in society and a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the full range of human rights.”
Continue Reading Kuwait has been rocked by a number of protests for better rights for the bidun people
A global problem
Stateless individuals exist predominantly in countries with a turbulent political past or that has gone through a transition to independence.
There are large numbers of stateless in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. The Himalayan nation of Nepal is believed to host around 800,000 people whose nationality is not confirmed and who cannot access important government services without a citizenship certificate.
In Kuwait, the origins of the bidun population are not entirely known. They may be related to those who did not fill in proper citizenship papers before 1920 (either due to illiteracy or other reasons), or refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and instability elsewhere and who have not yet been recognised by the state (many came from Iraq during the early 1990s).
Others are descendants of nomadic Bedouin tribes that do not claim Kuwaiti ethnicity. According to Kuwaiti custom, children born to bidun fathers are also considered bidun since mothers are not permitted to pass their Kuwaiti citizenship to their children.
The case of statelessness in Kuwait is unique as it affects more than a 100,000 people in a small and wealthy oil state, and is not an issue restricted to refugees and immigrants as in other countries with large stateless populations. Many Kuwaiti bidun have lived in the country for over three generations and have documents proving their existence prior to the 1965 census, which is a mandatory term for any person to gain citizenship according to the constitution.
The misconceptions held towards the stateless vary from one community to another, and are mainly based on prejudices. The stereotypes each community has created for the stateless of Kuwait include adjectives such as “uncivilized”, “uneducated”, “poorly dressed”, “Iraqi”, “Shia” and “Bedouin”.
To be a stateless individual, in Kuwait or elsewhere, means living a life challenged by legal barriers and societal discrimination. Being stateless myself, I have always felt a profound identity crisis trying to find a place to belong to.
When telling expatriates that I have no citizenship, they either react with shock or even sometimes with sarcasm and mockery. As a teenager and a young girl it was not easy for me to take insults or rejection, and so I often avoided making claims to my statelessness.
Without ID, passports, driving licenses, or certificates of birth, marriage, divorce, and death, stateless people are left with many questions and disappointment.
The two biggest issues that the stateless suffer from in Kuwait are the lack of access to education and employment. Kuwait denies the right for bidun to enrol in public schools and universities while private education is not affordable for the whole community. The law now prohibits companies from employing people with civil ID.
The government of Kuwait only succeeds in putting aside the case of statelessness because it faces little local or international pressure to solve it.
Members of parliament only speak out in favour of the bidun while campaigning to win the votes of Kuwaitis who have stateless relatives, while human rights activists are perceived as elitist and thus unwittingly isolate themselves from public opinion.
Dr. Ghanim Al-Najjar, a Kuwaiti professor and an advocate of statelessness, has pointed out in a recent lecture that the ignorance of ordinary Kuwaitis to the fate of the bidun in their country is a dangerous factor that worsens the situation for those suffering from statelessness.
It should clearly be acknowledged that the solution to statelessness comes hand in hand with the solution to discrimination - which is to praise the diversity of Kuwaiti society and to stress the importance of legally preserving it in order to protect individuals and communities from being mistreated and denied their rights.
When the government tries to abuse and exploit societal misconceptions to avoid solving critical issues, the plight of stateless individuals is only set to worsen.
Mona Kareem is a poet, journalist, and blogger at http://www.monakareem.blogspot.com
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