Kuwait Arrests Its Own People Seeking Citizenship

On 7 July 2019, Ayed Hamad Moudath, a 20-year-old from the Bidun community in Kuwait, took his own life. It was a tragic mark of his quiet determination to no longer face the discrimination that the Bidun face, or the day-to-day challenges of not being entitled to citizenship in his birth country. With no identification documents, Moudath was not allowed to study, work, have health care, or access services like Kuwaiti citizens.

As the sun set on 12 July 2019, a group of activists gathered for a peaceful sit-in at Freedom Square in the Taima area of Kuwait City in memory of the young man. They wanted change. They wanted to petition that this would not happen to another one of their youths. They wanted the equal rights they were denied for years.

The Kuwaiti authorities responded in kind, and over a dozen protestors were since arbitrarily arrested in the days after. They change that they wanted would not be coming any time soon.

Under Article Twelve, those who do not hold Kuwaiti citizenship are disallowed from participating in “processions, demonstrations, and gatherings”. And under Article Four, it is illegal to have demonstrations or other public gatherings without first obtaining a licence issued by the government. But, to be able to apply, the protestors must be able to provide their identity documentations. Both Articles, however, are in direct breach of Kuwait’s obligations under international human rights law.

Over 100,000 Bidun people reside in Kuwait. Most were born there with ancestors who have lived in Kuwait for generations, but they are considered to be “illegal residents”. Their very name – Bidun – means “without” in Arabic or in other words, “without citizenship”, which effectively permits them very few legal rights. As they are stateless, they do not have citizenship in any country in the world, and therefore face an impossible socioeconomic situation. They are even deprived of paperwork such as birth, marriage, and death certificates.

Devin Kenney, GCC Researcher at Amnesty International explained:

“The decision not to grant or recognize citizenship is a policy choice of the Kuwaiti government. The Kuwaiti government typically argues that the Bidun are fraudulently claiming to have no nationality and to be native to Kuwait while they actually have other nationalities (Iraqi, Syrian, etc.). Scholars generally substantiate the existence of a native Kuwaiti population that did not receive nationality at the time of state formation because of migratory patterns and the absence of any prior historical experience with a modern bureaucratic state. Informed observers tend to attribute the Kuwaiti government’s policy to a desire to avoid increasing any further the number of recipients of the generous state welfare benefits which nationality/citizenship confers.”

The Bidun originate from ancestors who failed to obtain nationality after Kuwait’s independence in 1961; those recruited in Kuwait’s armed forces or police in the 1960s; or the offspring of Kuwaiti mothers and fathers who were either stateless of foreigners.

In the 1960s and 70s, the community had access to some services such as free health care and education. But during the 1980s and 90s, the country was hit by political instability which caused a change in the government’s policies regarding the Bidun.

Mohamed Alenezi, a Bidun, left Kuwait in 1991 to visit mother in Iraq but was essentially travelling illegally since he was not entitled to a passport. Without the necessary documentation, he was not allowed back into Kuwait and spent time in Iraq and The Netherlands before he moved to the UK in 2000 with his wife and two children.

“Without ID or passport, you are not at home in the world,” he said. “The future is not yours, you don’t know the future of your children, you lose all your rights; if you die, no one cares for you. You are between the sky and the Earth, you are not going to fly and you are not going to fall down,” he told the Guardian.

A report by the Human Rights Watch called “Prisoners of the Past: Kuwaiti Bidun and the Burden of Statelessness,” detailed how in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries, the Bidun live in poverty under the radar of normal society – vulnerable and without protection.

“Kuwait will have to make a policy choice to respect the rights of all those born and living within its borders. For this to happen, it is key that Kuwait’s allies and trading partners press the government in good faith to uphold its international legal commitments,” added Kenney.

The Bidun situation was unfortunately overlooked for many decades. Statelessness is an ongoing crisis blighting the lives of at least 100,000 people in Kuwait alone. There are stateless populations in a similar situation in other Arab Gulf countries as well. The Bidun situation specifically and statelessness, in general, deserves greater recognition as a continuing global problem meriting urgent resolution.”