“WITHOUT” Protection: Kuwait’s stateless-Bidoon residents live on the margins of one of the world’s richest states


clock icon 08/11/2020

Kuwait further punishes ‘Bidoon’ with inherited security restrictions
A life in the shadows

“We live on the edge, without data, dates or certified documents. A life which resembles words written down on carbon paper, that can simply wear off with time with nothing left behind.” Ahmed sighs and adds: “We’re like these papers, there’s no proof of our existence”. Ahmed is medium height, with a slightly curved back, looking older than his late 40s age because his beard has a lot of white hair.

Ahmed is a ‘Bidoon’ (meaning “without” in Arabic, from “bidoon jinsiyya” or “without citizenship”). In Kuwait, this places him near the bottom of the ladder. His situation is further complicated by inherited security restrictions after the first Gulf War that denied him, and his family members as well, the right to education, healthcare, general employment, birth or marriage certificates, or/and even travel. This unfortunate destiny is a heavy debt transferred from one generation to the next one.

Ahmed (pseudonym) and his wife and kids did not commit any offense or crime to lose their basic rights. Ahmed’s only fault was that he was the son of a father who himself was from a ‘Bidoon’ group, and who was unlucky to find himself captured by the Iraqi Army during the 1990 invasion.

Many ‘Bidoon’ are of Iraqi or Saudi origin, and there was some Kuwaiti suspicion of ‘Bidoon’ as being a “fifth column” during the First Gulf War. Their designation changed over the course of the years from “non-Kuwaiti” or “without nationality”, and then just to “without”, or “Bidoon”.

After Ahmed’s father was released from captivity by the Iraqi army, he was accused by the Kuwaiti authorities of cooperating with the Iraqis, and faced some security restrictions as a punishment, like being prohibited from renewing his temporary ID card, and even the curtailment of the partial rights he enjoyed which the “illegal residents” or the ‘Bidoon’ used to get.

Although the court acquitted Ahmed’s father of the charge of cooperation (with the enemy) the security restriction remained intact for three decades and have been passed to his children and to their children. Ahmed is an example of how those ‘Bidoon’ with security restrictions struggle to survive in one of the world’s richest countries. “Kuwait’s Public Authority for Civil Information estimates the country’s total population to be 4,420,110 in 2019, with non-Kuwaitis accounting for nearly 70% of the population,” says the CIA World Factbook. The ‘Bidoon’ were estimated to number around 110,000 in 2015.

Behind those cold numbers is a tragedy: the situation of the ‘Bidoon’ is bad enough, as they have been classified as illegal residents in the only country most of them knew. They do not have access to the generous government subsidies, free public education and healthcare provided to all Kuwaitis The ‘Bidoon’ with security restrictions, like Ahmed, are in a worse state.

Who are the ‘Bidoon’?

The ‘Bidoon’ are Arab non-citizen residents of Kuwait, most of whom lived in Kuwait before its independence in 1961, yet they have been denied their political rights ever since. Some came to serve in the military or police, mainly from the neighbouring countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, as well as Syria. Others are tribal people whose families were nomads. Some belong to the same tribes that live in Kuwait and form part of the country’s political structure. Some ‘Bidoon’ did not understand the concept of citizenship and never applied for it in 1961. They and their descendants have been living in an increasingly untenable situation ever since.

While Kuwait is not a democracy, it’s the only Gulf country where those classified as citizens can vote for Parliament. The ‘Bidoon’ cannot. Thus they lack any political representation except informally, through their tribal ties.

Nor can ‘Bidoon’ own land, register a business, or access public medical care or education. As Human Rights Watch has noted, their situation has deteriorated over time:

“In the 1960s and 70s Kuwait gave the ‘Bidoon’ access to social and public services similar to those granted to its citizens, except voting rights. But during the political instability of the 1980s, when the country experienced a series of terrorist attacks, policy towards the ‘Bidoon’ dramatically shifted, and the government removed their access to government schools, free health care, and certain government jobs. Government officials began asserting that the vast majority of the ‘Bidoon’ were nationals of neighbouring countries who had destroyed their documents in the hope of claiming the benefits enjoyed through a Kuwaiti citizenship, and that they were “illegal residents”. In November 2010, government officials promised to implement a new initiative to resolve the situation within five years, and following ‘Bidoons’ protests in February and March (2011) the government made further promises to grant all registered ‘Bidoon’ free health care, free schooling for their children, and to increase their employment opportunities. However, none of these promises have yet become enforceable legal rights.”

So wrote HRW in 2011. The situation has not changed.

The so called regular ‘Bidoon’ are issued ID cards classifying them as “illegal residents”. These cards are valid from 6 months to a year and can be renewed at the Central Agency for Remedying Illegal Residents’ Status (CARIRS) in Kuwait, an entity founded in 2010. But as an activist who wishes to remain anonymous explains, the Central Agency requires that the ‘Bidoon’ who wish to renew their security cards to sign a commitment that the information on their cards are true, without their prior knowledge as to what’s going to be written on that card; that is, “signing on a blank”. This transaction prompted large numbers of them to refuse to sign, and thus aspects of these ‘Bidoons’ daily lives were dramatically affected due to their refusal to renew their cards.

The ‘Bidoon’ with security restrictions have only temporary ID cards, which are also known as green cards which cannot be renewed and in fact, many are expired. These cards are essential for applying for temporary jobs (without any job security), or paying to go to school, or receiving medical treatment at their own expense, or the freedom to travel anywhere. These ‘Bidoon’ may not be issued birth certificates, passports or death certificates, according to reports issued by Human Rights Watch.

The interior ministry and the military intelligence database show that these inherited restrictions are given as a result of serious accusations against individual ‘Bidoon’. The security restrictions’ victims never got a chance to defend themselves against these accusations. These restrictions result in depriving their holders of the power of renewing their temporary security card.

The problem of security restrictions extends vertically to include the father, mother, sons and daughters. And horizontally to include the brothers and sisters, their spouses and children, and up to the cousins, according to the former director of the Human Rights Association and lawyer in ‘Bidoon’ cases in Kuwait, Muhammad Al-Hamidi.

Al-Hamidi further reveals that some of these restrictions have even reached infants and pre-school children, which is senseless and cruel.

All of this contradicts the Kuwaiti constitution of 1962, and the international human rights conventions signed by Kuwait.

Shantytown visit

The luxurious oil-rich Kuwait stops at the outskirts of Tayma, which is one of the Bidoon areas in the Jahra governorate, which we visited in the hope of meeting two of those affected by security restrictions. Jahra is in the center of the country, 20 miles from the capital, Kuwait City. Ahmed and his friend Salem (not his real name) are among the few who agreed to talk to us over the course of six months of research for this investigation. Both earn a scanty income from informal trading.

The low, one-storey, old tin roofed houses here have been subdivided to expand the floor areas and solve the problem of overcrowding due to the ever increasing number of family members. That was why the streets have become narrower as we moved deeper into the neighbourhood, towards Salem’s house.

There, we met a twenty-year-old man, Ali (pseudonym), he was impatient and started talking to us when he learned the purpose of our visit: “Trust me, there is no hope”. His phrase was filled with despair and frustration that reflected what the lives of those living with security restrictions go through.

This young man was the son of Salem, who after some hesitation, allowed us to have a conversation with him and Ahmed.

The house was simple, neat and humble. We held the interview in the diwaniya (guest room for men), which was furnished with traditional Bedouin “al-sadu” embroidery in red.

Bidoon are mostly located at Tayma, which is 20 miles from the capital, Kuwait City.

A Heavy Heritage

Ahmad, who is in his late 40s, remembers the day the security restriction was imposed on his father in 1991, when Ahmad was just a student. Since then, Ahmed, his family, his brothers and their children were subsequently denied the renewal of their security cards.

Ahmed’s father, a former military man and the first security restrictions victim in the family, is now 70 years old and has been suffering from diabetes for years. However, like all the ‘Bidoon’, he has been denied health insurance to cover the cost of his treatment in public hospitals.

Ahmad says he had filed a lawsuit in Kuwaiti court in which he demanded the issuing of an ID card for himself and his family members in order to get rid of the suffering caused by the security restrictions. The case lasted years in court deliberations and Ahmad’s case was won ten years ago, but the judge’s ruling has not yet been implemented.

There were writings on the wall of a Bidoon family’s house that said: “I never wished to shed a tear, yet sorrow made me. I wished to live as I wanted”.

The Price of Demanding Rights

The Kuwaiti government does not grant ‘Bidoon’ children any legal residence similar to those granted to Arab and foreign residents. Rather, the government believes that it’s sufficient to issue a security card in which they are classified as “illegal residents”. The card contains the information of the holders and a statement on the back that reads: “This card is not a proof of identity. It cannot be used for other purposes”. That is, it does not bestow any rights for its bearer.

Nevertheless, this temporary card is of great importance for the ‘Bidoons’ to carry on living. Therefore, the denial of their renewal represents a harsh collective punishment that complicates the lives of the holders and their families, as it means in practice that they will not be able to obtain services. This despite the fact that Kuwait has an annual budget of 21 billion Kuwaiti dinars (approximately $69 billion) to spend on their citizens who do not exceed 1.33 million according to the 2018-2019 census.

Ahmed’s suffering is not unique. His friend, Salem, 50 years old, tall and agile with a kind face lives with the same conundrum.

Salem is now paying the price for daring to participate in peaceful demonstrations in the city of Jahra, in February 2011, aimed at claiming his rights and the rights of his ‘Bidoon’ counterparts. After these demonstrations that coincided with the Arab Spring, a security restriction was imposed on Salem, whose impact on him and his family increased over the years.

“In the beginning,” Salem said, “I was denied the right to renew my security card, then they dismissed me from my government job. Later, and because of this dismissal, I was denied any compensation materially of morally. All this resulted in my inability to even send my children to private schools, because my security card was not renewed.”

In the hope of lifting the restrictions, Salem signed a pledge in front of the ‘Central Agency for the Remedy of Situations of Illegal Residents’, in which he acknowledged the waiver of his right to publicly protest or get involved in activities demanding civil rights for the ‘Bidoon’. Nevertheless the security restrictions were not lifted.

The Road to Illiteracy

Depriving the ‘Bedoon’ from their right to education is a major problem according to an academic in the field of human rights who requested to remain anonymous.

For example, ‘Bidoon’ children are denied access to private schools due to the lack of identification documents. (Bidoon children are not allowed to enrol in government schools, because they are ‘illegally” residing in Kuwait, as their security cards indicate). The good news is that for some lucky ‘Bidoon’ who succeed in enrolling at private schools, tuition fees are paid through charitable funds or donations. However, the education at these schools is usually inferior to that at public schools.

Access to education is denied for all academic stages from primary, secondary, and university levels, and even extends to curtailing access to postgraduate studies. This is what happened to a young ‘Bidoon’ student, whose nomination to do a master’s degree at Kuwait University was refused by the ‘Central Agency for the Remedy of Situations of Illegal Residents’, which drove a member of the master’s committee, Dr. Imad Khorshid, to submit his resignation from the committee. Dr. Khorshid announced on Twitter that he resigned as a protest against the Central Agency’s refusal to renew the student’s security card, asking him to seek a nationality from a different country instead.

Dr. Khorshid had confirmed the reason behind his resignation, but declined to speak on the record as he is still a member of the teaching staff and is not cleared to comment on this matter.

Losing a Job is Tantamount to Losing Ones Life

Ayed Hamad Moudath, a 20 years old man from Jahra, was forced to leave his job as he couldn’t renew his security card without the Central Agency’s permission. He committed suicide by hanging himself in his bedroom on July 7, 2019.

Ayed’s suicide affected public opinion in Kuwait, and raised the ‘Bidoon’ issue back to the fore. One week after Ayed’s death, ‘Bidoon’ activists organized a peaceful protest, but the State Security Service arrested 14 of them, according to Human Rights Watch. It later announced on August 22, that 12 of the detainees had started a hunger strike in protest against the violations of their rights and the rights of the ‘Bidoon’.

Till this day, the suicide incident has evoked sympathy amongst people in Kuwait, but it did not change government policies towards the ‘Bidoon’.

Fact Box:

Three key motives are behind the security restrictions against ‘the Bidoon’ according to lawyer Muhammad Al-Hamidi:

Political: This is usually as a reaction to activities such as the participation in protests demanding ‘Bidoon’ rights or criticizing the Central Agency on social media.
Counterfeit passports Some countries, like Liberia, Eritrea and the Dominican Republic, were selling passports to the ‘Bidoon’ during the years 1992-2000, with the knowledge of the Kuwaiti government. Advertisements for granting passports valid for five years were published in Kuwaiti newspapers. But later, the government considered these passports to be fraudulent, and then the Central Agency placed security restrictions on those passport holders. Although many decisions were issued by the Court of Appeal to restore these persons to their previous status, the Central Agency refused to implement those rulings.
Presumption of another nationality Suspecting that the individual has a relative who holds another nationality such as Iraqi, Syrian or other. In this case, the Central Agency will add on the back of the ‘Bidoons’ green card a note that the holder is suspected of having access to another nationality.

Souad, a 55 years old Kuwaiti woman is an example of the third type.

She looks elegant wearing makeup and a headscarf, and explains that she was deceived by her husband, as he did not inform her of his ‘Bidoon’ status prior to their marriage, which was a shock to her since three of his brothers have the Kuwaiti citizenship.

After being blessed with two children, Souad divorced her husband. Kuwaiti law gives hope to a divorced Kuwaiti woman and grant her the right to pass on her citizenship to her children born from a non Kuwaiti father.

Bidoon ID cards (aka green cards) show if the holder has a security restriction or not. Those who do cannot renew their cards.

However, Souad and her son and daughter lives are at a standstill. For an unknown reason the Central Agency indicated in its records that Souad’s son was “Iraqi”, and her daughter was “Syrian”. The son was then denied employment, while her daughter was denied a marriage certificate.

Souad learned for the first time that her son was Iraqi and that her daughter was Syrian when one day she went to renew their security cards on her own. She figured that, being a Kuwaiti citizen, she would not suffer insults, unlike her “Bidoon” son and daughter.

Until now, Souad cannot understand how the same father and mother can give birth to children with two different nationalities. Since that day, Souad and her kids have been paying the price of this strange case.

This puzzle is partly explained by the professor of public law specialised in constitutional matters Dr. Mohammed Al-Fieli who believes that the Central Agency issues these restrictions without recourse to proof or legal evidence. “It is unacceptable to take a grave decision like that, which is equal to an indictment, without respecting the right to confront the accused or allowing them the right to defend themselves,” Dr. Al-Fieli says.

Fear Leads to Silent Suffering

Among the Bidoon and especially those who have security restrictions, fear of punishment and harm goes hand in hand with the denial of most of their human rights. During this investigation, many of the people affected were idle and unwilling to expose their suffering. They often avoided mentioning personal details that might aggravate their case. Sometimes it seemed like they were taking a step forward willing to talk about their suffering, then suddenly they retreat. Many of them refused to take part in our investigation, which led to months spent in waiting to complete it.

Jassim, an angry 30 years old skinny and medium hight ‘Bidoon’, only agreed for his interview to be filmed after hiding his face with the men’s Arab headscarf called ‘ghutra’.

Jassim says: “This is our actual life, we are always gagged, and cannot speak, and if we do, we are punished, and the punishment of the ‘Bidoon’ is not limited to the person himself, but rather a more comprehensive punishment that extends like an octopus.”

Jassim, who is an informal real estate broker, was registered with a security restriction eight years ago. He was charged with participating in a peaceful demonstration in February 2011 demanding that the tragic ‘Bidoon’ situation in Kuwait be addressed. Since then, that restriction has turned his life into hell.

Jassim did not succeed in getting rid of his security restrictions even after he was acquitted when his case went to trial. The security restriction remains in place, and the more actively involved Jassim got in the struggle for the ‘Bidoon’ rights, the security restrictions were imposed on Jassim’s family and his distant relatives”.

At first, he says, “the restrictions were extended to my wife and children, then my father and my brothers.”

“It later moved to my cousins ​​and uncle, then finally the security restrictions were passed on even to their husbands and sons, and it still spreads like a cancer in the family tree.”

Jassim feels guilty sometimes. He does not believe that he had committed an offense when he peacefully demanded to obtain his rights as a human being; nonetheless, everyone around him is starting to pay the price, as well.

“I was ostracized and was blamed for my human rights activism for the burden of these security restrictions imposed on their lives. Frankly, their lives have stopped because of these restrictions, and they face daily problems in trying to even get the simplest of things like birth certificates, marriage contracts, or government reviews”, Jassim told us. “This restriction deprived me and my family and relatives of all of our rights, and it has become a psychological trauma that I suffer from constantly”.

Changing numbers

No one outside the Kuwaiti government knows how many ‘Bidoon’ are living under security restrictions. While lawyer Mohamed Al-Hamidi believes that they are in their thousands, the lawyer and activist, Muhammad Abdullah El-Enezi, thinks that the number varies stating that “Their numbers change daily. A ‘Bidoon’ person may spend 20 or 30 years without any security restrictions, and then wake up one day to find a security restriction imposed on him.”

El-Enezi believes also that most of these restrictions “are not justified by the Central Agency for the Remedy of Situations of Illegal Residents”.

Al-Enezi and Al-Hamidi have two different explanations for this agency’s behaviour. On one hand, El-Enezi understands that the Central Agency assumes that the ‘Bidoon’ are hiding documents and identification papers of other neighbouring countries, and therefore, setting security restrictions seems like the appropriate way of pressuring them into revealing those documents. El-Enezi describes this problem as “a snowball that rolls and grows day by day.”

Al-Hamidi thinks the Agency is trying by this way to minimize the ‘Bidoon’ problem. The number of ‘Bidoon’ is estimated at 100,000, a number that is rising steadily over the years. Al-Hamidi says, “Through security restrictions, the Agency can say that 10,000 ‘Bidoon’ are Iraqis, 10,000 are Syrians, 10,000 are Saudis, and 10,000 are Iranians”, and so on. “Henceforth, the total number of ‘Bidoons’ who actually need solutions to their problems will only be 20,000 or 25,000. So the Agency will appear to have solved most of the ‘Bidoon’ problem”.

The Bidoon “without nationality” live in tin roofed houses in one of the richest countries in the world.

Constitutional and legal violations

To be banned from work, banned from getting an education, to be banned from having access to medical care, banned from obtaining identification documents, banned from travelling is in violation of the Kuwaiti constitution. Article 29 of the constitution states that “People are equal in humanity and dignity, and that they are equal in front of the law in terms of their public rights and duties. There is no discrimination between them based on gender, origin, language or religion.”

The transfer of security restrictions horizontally and vertically also constitutes collective punishment, as confirmed by constitutional expert Dr. Muhammad Al-Fieli. The transfer of these restrictions violate the basic legal concept, that is “there is no crime and no punishment without context.” Al-Fieli elaborates: “The trials are not fair unless the right to defend yourself in court is respected, just as you cannot be the one making the accusation and then be the judge at the same time, as this is not consistent with justice.

Lawyer Al-Hamidi is of a similar view. He criticizes the concept of “imposing security restrictions without evidence, proof, even without confronting the people subject to those restrictions.” He also confirms that “this violation is more entrenched when the Kuwaiti Court issued in October 2017 a ruling stating that these restrictions are the sovereign right of the state,” meaning that the people affected may not denounce or sue those who issued the rulings in Kuwaiti courts.

Based on this, Al-Hamidi asserts that security restrictions violate the international agreements that Kuwait signed, such as the 2012 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In that convention point C-17 specifically relates to the ‘Bidoon’ situation.

On the other side, he thinks that those who impose restrictions are exploiting a loophole in these charters. “The Kuwaiti constitution and the international agreements to which Kuwait is bound by, stipulate that these restrictions are not to be placed without evidence, yet unfortunately, most of the articles related to this matter within the constitution, as well as in international agreements, are accompanied by a final statement, which is that it should not be contrary to the public order.” Al-Hamidi further adds: “This is why this matter is left as a sovereign right of the state, and the United Nations respects matters relating to sovereignty, and does not interfere in these matters because every country has its own sovereignty”.

Out of Service

In November 2019, new legislations were introduced in the Kuwaiti Parliament concerning the ‘Bidoon’. The proposed law which was 10 articles long, stated that there are “advantages” to be provided to the Bidoon, that constitute in fact basic needs that some ‘Bidoons’ are deprived of. The proposed law demanded that the ‘Bidoon’ must declare their non-Kuwaiti citizenship first in-order to obtain these rights or benefits as described in Article 4 of the proposal.

Article 4: Residents in Kuwait who will reveal their other nationality, will enjoy the following benefits and will not be punished for violating the Kuwaiti Residency laws:
  • 1. Free health care in all facilities of the Ministry of Health.
  • 2. Health care for people with special needs.
  • 3. Free education at all levels.
  • 4. Granting the ration card.
  • 5. Extracting and registering all documents related to personal status matters and other identification documents.
  • 6. Obtaining driving licenses of all kinds in accordance with the regulations and rules in force.
  • 7. Working in private and public sectors in accordance with the applicable laws and regulations for foreigners working in Kuwait.
  • 8. Carrying out government transactions of all kinds.
  • 9. Carrying out commercial activities to obtain the required licenses.
  • 10. Any other advantages and facilities that they may consider adding should be approved by the concerned minister. This is without prejudice to the rights of those who meet the conditions in the Nationality Law to apply for Kuwaiti citizenship.

The sixth article came to entrench the punishment of the Central Agency for those who do not provide non-Kuwaiti citizenship documents:

Article 6: A resident whose legal status has not been corrected within the time limit referred to in Article 3 of this law is treated as a foreigner who is in violation of the law and the provisions of the Residency Laws; and other relevant legislation apply to him/her and they don’t get to enjoy any of the benefits stipulated by this law and may not be granted Kuwaiti citizenship in the future.

Our investigators sent several emails to the “Central Agency for the Remedying of Illegal Residents’ Status”, the only means of communication with this agency, between the beginning of March and the 13th of November 2019. The questions centred on the legality of establishing security restrictions on ‘Bidoon’ individuals, and asked what law CARIRS relies on to pass security restrictions along generations of ‘Bidoon’ individuals. Until the publication of this investigation, we have not received any response from the agency.

On 29 January 2020, in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Conference met to discuss Kuwait. The Central Agency CARIRS representative claimed that there’s nothing such as illegal residents or ‘Bidoon’ living in Kuwait. He also added that the Bidoon receive free education and healthcare, and that they can be issued official documents, driving licenses, and food stamps, and are able to work in both the private and public sector.

Nawaf Al-Hendal, a Kuwaiti human rights activist, was present and reported about the conference via Twitter. The Central Agency representative’s remarks sparked the spread of a hashtag claiming that “the lying Kuwaiti delegation”.

On the other side, we tried to get an update from Human Rights Watch, through the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division, Michael Page. Mr. Page had met with the head of the Kuwaiti Central Agency, Saleh Al-Fadallah, in mid-February 2019 to address the situation of illegal residents (Bidoon). The Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Qabas, published on 18 February 2019 that the agency answered the organization’s questions at that meeting.

Mr. Page welcomed the project by communicating with the investigative journalist via his Twitter account, and promised to answer questions via email. However, Mr. Page has not answered any questions yet through email, nor responded to repeated Twitter messages.

Before we left the poor Tayma neighbourhood, Ahmed had to say this on the Bidoon problem and the security restrictions: “It will continue to grow over time. As for our family, the security restrictions began with one person, then it moved to our small family of three, and then it kept spreading to three generations from grandfathers to grandchildren, to include 35 people in total, which is the whole family”.