Statelessness in Kuwait

Being stateless means that you do not have any civil rights such as personal documents, education, employment, or access to medical care. In Kuwait there are currently around 100 000 stateless people. Anyone who wants to become a citizen in Kuwait must be registered in the 1965 census, otherwise they are considered by the Government to be illegal residents. Journalist Mona Kareem, who herself is stateless, writes about this controversial issue.

December 14 2011 Text: Mona Kareem

Statelessness is categorized by both media and governments as one of the most neglected and ignored international causes. International organizations estimate that 12 million people around the world are stateless, yet the numbers cannot be confirmed and are likely to be bigger as governments do not recognize those citizens-of-nowhere and thus have no documents or records for them with which to compile correct numbers. This rings the bell that statelessness is not only a phenomenon that clearly violates human rights but also a growing phenomenon that threatens nationhood and humanity: to have millions of people with no records, documents, education, health, or employment. Unfortunately, the only work done to address this issue comes from international organizations who are limited to reporting estimated numbers—limited information to which they react by issuing statements and writing letters or petitions addressed to regimes that most probably make no efforts to combat statelessness or who might even refuse to do so for reasons such as discrimination, corruption, and bureaucracy.

When I gave a speech last month in Washington D.C. about statelessness in Kuwait, Portugal’s former Prime Minister and the current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said he finds the issue of statelessness in Kuwait to be the most unfair one in the world since it concerns more than 100 000 people in this small wealthy oil state. Many of the stateless people around the world might be immigrants who have had to leave their countries due to poverty, wars, or disasters, which makes them fall under the umbrella of refugees. With the Bidun in Kuwait (in Arabic the stateless are called Bidun), however, the situation has a different both story- and timeline. Many of the stateless have been in Kuwait for over three generations and have documents proving their living there prior to 1965, which, according to the constitution, is a time-span that makes it mandatory for any person to gain citizenship.

The stateless in Kuwait are sub-grouped into several categories: some have been there for three generations, some served in the army for decades, and some died in the Arab-Israeli wars in which Kuwait participated during the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Many have Kuwaiti mothers but the country does not allow women to pass their citizenships on to their spouses or to their children in the way male citizens may do. There were also stateless individuals who had been imprisoned during the occupation by the Iraqi army and whose corpses were later found in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Yet, despite all the contributions and sacrifices the stateless have made for the country so far, they are still not granted their rights to a legal status.

Despite the reforms needed, the Kuwaiti constitutional Citizenship Law, if applied, could solve the problems of many of those who are stateless. On the one hand, all of those who fulfill the constitutional terms, such as: residency prior to 1965, having relatives who carry a citizenship, or having served the country in the war, will all qualify to be naturalized. On the other hand, those who do not fulfill these terms—those who were born in the country or are children of Kuwaiti mothers—will remain stateless. The national law of citizenship is not adequate and it surely needs to be updated. This is especially so when considering its unequal treatment of female citizens who can only pass on citizenship to their children if they are widowed or divorced. Also, the law does not take into consideration many new factors that have arisen since the constitution was written half a century ago.

Regardless of its negative aspects, the stateless of Kuwait have not been demanding any changes to the existing law but instead demand that it is actually implemented so that many of the ‘solid’ cases could be solved. Afterwards the country can enter the phase where also the legally ‘weaker’ cases can be solved. The Government, however, to avoid any criticism from human rights organizations and the international media, pays no attention to this vital cause and instead attempts to give temporary solutions only. This is happening in a country where media and the citizens are allowed to continuously debate politics and make critical remarks about their political leaders in a more free way than what is permitted in the rest of the GCC countries. However, this is where a very important aspect of the issue arises.

Since the Government is not facing any local or international pressure to solve the issue of statelessness, it is possible for the Government to put the issue aside. While campaigning to win the votes of the Kuwaitis who have stateless relatives, Members of Parliament still speak of the cause, whereas human rights activists seem to be too elitist and thus more isolated from the public audience. Dr. Ghanim Al-Najjar, a Kuwaiti professor and an advocate of the statelessness cause, has pointed out in a recent lecture that the ignorance of the citizens about the issue of statelessness in their country is a dangerous factor that worsens the status of the stateless in Kuwait. This statement by Dr. Al-Najjar is very true. However, it has not yet been given any proper solution.

The misperceptions about the stateless vary from one community to another and are based on prejudice. The stereotypes each community have created for the stateless of Kuwait include adjectives such as: uncivilized, uneducated, poorly dressed, Iraqi-rooted, Shia, and Bedouins. Also, if naturalized, the stateless are seen as a threatening force of change in the political sphere. Back in the 70’s, Kuwait naturalized members of a Saudi tribe who were then used to implement change in the voting system. This action was severely attacked by the leftists (who were more popular back then), and also by many political and social figures in Kuwait. The impact of this event shed its injustice on the Bidun community and generations of citizens are being fed with the same misperceptions.

Being a wealthy society where discrimination seems to be the norm, many citizens expect any ‘qualified’ Kuwaiti to speak, dress, and act like them. This of course becomes a practice that is even used by citizens against each other. The Kuwaiti society does not yet realize, acknowledge, or accredit its diversity, nor does it realize the necessity to respect diversity and to consider it in regard to the formation of the state. Some voices have been trying to prove that the Bidun are ‘just like us’ in an attempt to defend them and prove their ‘eligibility’ as citizens, when in fact the right to be different should be protected and respected and not be considered a reason to bar anyone from their right to citizenship.

Many Bidun acted the same way trying to prove their loyalty, especially in comparison to the ‘odd’ naturalizations of some expatriates. Some Bidun have also made the mistake of practicing counter-discrimination towards other citizens, thereby limiting the definition of a Kuwaiti citizen to a question of how ‘Arabic’ he/she is. Instead, all groups, whether citizens or stateless, need to advocate the importance and ‘beauty’ of diversity that has been in Kuwait since it first started to exist as a small community around four centuries ago.

Media surely plays a dirty role in feeding this misperception. Some newspapers do not hesitate to make filthy remarks against the Bidun or even against a certain community of Kuwaiti citizens. Recently, the discriminatory remarks were used within a sectarian framework, and back in the 80’s discrimination was often set within a racial framework, especially against those who have Persian roots. Newspapers gain nothing tangible or beneficial by supporting the stateless community; instead they become more controversial and sellable when they confirm the stereotypes and take the side of the Government in a cause that does not really matter to them.

It should clearly be acknowledged that the solution of the problem of statelessness comes hand in hand with the end of discrimination. While the Government tries to hide behind societal misperceptions in order to avoid solving the critical issue of statelessness, the solution is rather to praise the diversity of the Kuwaiti society and point out the importance of legally preserving it in order to protect individuals and communities from being mistreated and denied their rights.

* Mona Kareem is a poet, journalist, and blogger at monakareem.blogspot.com