Kuwait's plan for stateless residents

The rich Gulf states have always been wary of granting citizenship to long-term residents of foreign origin. The result, in Kuwait, is more than 100,000 stateless people – many of them born in the country – who are known as bidoun.

"Bidoun" is Arabic for "without", and there are many rights and privileges that Kuwait's bidoun lack, as Refugees International 

"Although the bidoun lived in Kuwait long before its independence in 1961, they are considered by the authorities as 'illegal residents' and refused birth certificates, public schooling, marriage certificates, and the right to peacefully assemble. Bidoun also face barriers to health care; some bidoun can access limited health insurance and others are denied health care altogether. 

"Most bidoun live in two communities of makeshift housing about 18 miles outside of Kuwait City ... They must rent accommodation, as they have no right to own, sell, or pass property on to their children upon death. Despite their multi-generational presence in the nation, the bidoun are not recognised as legally residing in Kuwait, and in almost all circumstances, they are not permitted to leave because the government refuses to issue travel documents."

Over the last few years, however, Kuwait's bidoun have become more organised. Demonstrations demanding citizenship and other basic rights have been dispersed by the authorities and hundreds have been arrested on charges of taking part in "illegal" protests or assaulting the police.

The authorities have made a few concessions – earlier this year they granted driving licences to 575 bidoun – but the bidoun say they have also been coming under increased pressure in other areas. Last month, for instance, there was a protest by parents of 700 bidoun children who had been denied primary school places because they did not have the birth certificates or other official documents needed for registration in schools.

Kuwait says up to 37,000 bidoun may be eligible for citizenship but the other 60,000-plus are regarded as illegal immigrants. One MP has even proposed herding some of them into a remote desert camp near the border.

But now there is another idea: to make them citizens of the Comoros Islands (population 800,000), an archipelago in the Indian Ocean which is one of the more obscure members of the Arab League. 

According to Major General Mazen al-Jarrah, director of Kuwait's Citizenship Department, bidoun will be granted "special applications for Comoros economic citizenship". 

Those who accept the offer will be given free residence permits in Kuwait, "in addition to a series of incentives like free education and healthcare and the right to employment", the Arab Times reports. The process would start as soon as an embassy for Comoros is opened in Kuwait.

In effect, the bidoun would be asked to renounce their claims to Kuwaiti citizenship in return for citizenship of Comoros – a country which few, if any, have connections with. As a sweetener, they would be granted residence permits in Kuwait, though there is no guarantee that these permits would not be withdrawn at some point in the future, forcing them to leave.

This also seems to be a reversal of the Kuwaiti government's previous position, claiming that most of the bidoun have other nationalities and should therefore be treated as illegal immigrants.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 10 November 2014