Kuwait further punishes some 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 (“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 carried by one generation to another.
Ahmed (pseudonym), his wife and kids did not commit any offense or crime to lose their human rights. Ahmed’s only fault was that he was the son of a father who himself was of the 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 a “fifth column” during the First Gulf War. Their designation changed over the course of time from “non-Kuwaiti” or “without nationality”, and then just to “without”, or “Bidoon”.
And after Ahmed’s father was released by the Iraqi army, he was accused of cooperating with the Iraqi army and punished by security restrictions. This prohibited him from renewing his temporary ID card and any other partial rights that even government-designated “illegal residents” like the regular Bidoon get.
Although the court acquitted Ahmed’s father of that charge, the security restriction has been imposed on him for three decades and have 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 for 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 bland numbers is a tragedy: the situation of the Bidoon is bad enough, as they are classified as illegal residents of the only country most of them have known. They do not have access to the generous subsidies, free public education and healthcare provided to Kuwaiti citizens. But the Bidoon with security restrictions, like Ahmed, are in a still worse state.
Who are the Bidoon?
The Bidoon are Arab non-citizen residents of Kuwait, most of who actually lived in Kuwait before its independence in 1961, yet have been were denied political rights ever since. Some came to serve in the military or police, mainly from the neighboring countries of Iraq and Saudi Arabia as well as Syria. Others are tribal people whose families were nomadic. 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 the Parliament. Bidoon cannot. They thus lack any political representation except informally, through tribal ties.
Nor can Bidoon own land or register a business, or use public medical care or education. As Human Rights Watch has noted, their situation has deteriorated over time:
“In the 1960s and 70s Kuwait gave Bidun the same access to social and public services as citizens, except for voting rights. But during the political instability of the 1980s, when the country experienced a series of terrorist attacks, policy towards the Bidun 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 Bidun were nationals of neighboring countries who had destroyed their documents in hopes of claiming the benefits of Kuwaiti citizenship, and that they were “illegal residents.””
“In November 2010 government officials promised a new initiative to resolve the situation within five years, and following Bidun protests in February and March (2011) they made further promises to grant all registered Bidun free health care, provide children with free schooling, 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 regular Bidoon are issued ID cards classifying them as “illegal residents”. These cards are good for 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 sign a commitment to the validity of the information mentioned in the card, without knowing what’s going to be written on the card; that is, “signing a blank”. This transaction prompted large numbers of them to refuse to sign, and thus aspects of these Bidoons’ 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. They cannot be renewed and in fact, many are expired. These cards are essential for applying for temporary jobs (without any job security), or going to school at their own expense, 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’s and military intelligence’s 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 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.
The look of luxurious, oil-rich Kuwait changes on the outskirts of Tayma, which is one of the Bidoon areas in the Jahra governorate, where we paid a visit 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 in informal trading.
The low, one-storey, old tin roofed houses here have been subdivided to expand the floor areas and solve the problem of increasing numbers of family members. That was why the streets narrowed down as we moved deeper into the neighborhood, towards Salem’s house.
There, we met a twenty-year-old man, Ali (pseudonym) He hastened to begin a discussion when we told him the purpose of our visit: “Trust me, there is no hope”. His phrase was filled with an abundance of despair and frustration that surrounded the lives of those living with security restrictions.
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.
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, brothers and their children were subsequently denied the renewal of the security card.
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 needed for treatment in public hospitals.
Ahmad says he has 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 of the security restrictions. Although the case took four years and ended ten years ago with Ahmad’s victory, the judge’s ruling has not yet been implemented.
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 written statement on the back that states: “This card is not proof of identity. It cannot be used for other purposes.” That is, it does not bestow any rights for the bearer.
Nevertheless, this temporary card is of great importance in continuing the Bidoons’ life, despite its difficulty. 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 ($69 billion) for their citizens who do not exceed 1.33 million according to the 2018-2019 census.
Ahmed’s suffering is shared by his friend, Salem, 50 years old, tall and agile with a kind face.
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 in February 2011, the period of the Arab Spring, a security restriction was imposed on Salem, whose effects on him and his family accumulated over the following years.
“In the beginning,” Salem said, “I was denied the renewal of the security card, then they dismissed me from my government job. And later, because of this dismissal, I was denied my material and moral rights, and 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, 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 remain in effect.
The Road to Ignorance
The deprivation of their right to learn is the major problem of the Bidoon, according to an academic in the field of human rights who requested to be anonymous.
For example, Bidoon children are denied access to private schools due to the lack of identification documents. (Bidoon children are not allowed to enroll in government schools, because they are ‘illegally” residing in Kuwait, as their security cards indicate.) The good news is that for any lucky Bidoon who succeeds in enrolling in a private school, tuition fees are guaranteed through charitable funds and donations. However, the education in these schools is inferior to the public schools.
The denial of education is not only confined to the basic stages (primary, secondary, and university), but extends even to postgraduate studies. This is what happened with a young Bidoon student, whose nomination to do a master’s degree at Kuwait University was refused by the Central Agency, 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 the reason for leaving the committee was the Central Agency’s actions to refuse the renewal of the student’s security card, telling him that he would have to obtain a nationality of another country or the final solution left would be rejecting his nomination.
Dr. Khorshid confirms the accuracy of his resignation news, but apologized for not speaking about other details as he is a member of the teaching staff and is not allowed to speak about this.
Cut Necks and Not Livelihoods
This phrase applies to the 20 year-old man Ayed Hamad Moudath, of Jahra, who was forced to leave his job as he couldn’t renew his security card without the Central Agency’s permission. He hung himself in his bedroom on the 7th of July 2019.
This death had a great impact on people in Kuwait, and brought the Bidoon issue back to the fore. One week after Moudath’s suicide, Bidoon activists organized a peaceful public 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 the people’s sympathy in Kuwait, yet it did not change any Bidoon-related government policies
Types of Security Restrictions
There are three motives behind the security restrictions in the eyes of the Kuwaiti society, according to lawyer Muhammad Al-Hamidi:
|Political constraint||In response to political activity such as public protests demanding Bidoons’ 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 responsible placed security restrictions on those passport holders. Although many decisions were issued by the Court of Appeal to restore these persons to their previous normal status – those without nationality (Bidoon) and not as security restrictions holders – 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 shall write a statement on the back of the Bidoon’s special green card, indicating that this person presumptively has another nationality.|
A Kuwaiti woman, Souad, around 55 years old is an example of the third type – as well as the sexism involved with transmission of Kuwaiti citizenship.
Souad has elegant clothes and makeup, and wears a headscarf. She says that she was deceived by her husband, as he did not tell her before marriage that he does not have Kuwaiti citizenship, and that he is Bidoon. This was a shock, especially since three of his brothers have Kuwaiti citizenship.
A few years later, after she had two children, Souad divorced her husband. Kuwaiti law gives hope to a divorced Kuwaiti woman that she may pass citizenship to her children who non-Kuwaiti. Generally, Kuwaiti nationality is only inherited from one’s father except for minor children. “Kuwaiti women”, Human Rights Watch notes, “ may pass their nationality on to their children only when the father is unknown or fails to establish legal paternity, when the couple divorces, or upon the death of the stateless husband. “ (HRW) On this hope, some Kuwaiti women married to Bidoon have already divorced. But they are still waiting for the dream of granting citizenship to their children.
Now Souad lives with her grown son and daughter, whose lives are at a standstill. Her son and daughter obtained the right to graduate university because they are children of a Kuwaiti citizen, but they lost this advantage after the Central Agency indicated in its records – for an unknown reason – that the son was “Iraqi”, and the daughter was “Syrian”. Her son was 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 be insulted, unlike her “Bidoon” son and daughter.
Until now, Souad cannot understand how the same father and mother can have two children with two different nationalities. But since that day, she — alongside her kids — started paying the price of this strange case.
This puzzle is partly explained by a professor of public law at Kuwait University, constitutional expert Dr. Mohammed al-Fili. He believes that the Central Agency issues these restrictions without providing proof and legal evidence of them. “It is unacceptable to take a decision of a high degree of seriousness, approaching the idea of punishment, without respecting the right to confront the accused or his right to defend himself,” Dr. Al-Fili says.
Gagging the Mouths
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 standing on the sidelines, without trying to acquire any information and expose the suffering. And they avoided mentioning personal details that might aggravate the damage. Sometimes it seemed like they were taking a step forward in talking about their suffering, and then suddenly retreated. Many of them refused to participate in discussions, which led to the delay in completing the investigation.
Another 30 year old Bidoon, Jassim, medium in height, is skinny and filled with rage. He did not agree to film the meeting until after he hid his face with the Arab headscarf (ghutra).
Jassim says: “This is our actual life, we are always gagged, 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 needs to be addressed. Since then, that restriction has turned his life into hell.
Jassim did not succeed in getting rid of his security restrictions even when he was brought to trial and was actually acquitted. The security restriction remains in place, and the more actively involved Jassim got in the field of Bidoon rights, the greater the circle of Jassim’s family and far relatives who would suffer security restrictions. ”
At first, he says, “it was imposed on 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 cancer in the family tree.”
Jassim feels guilty sometimes. He does not believe that he commits an offense when he peacefully demands his rights as a human being; nonetheless, everyone around him is starting to pay the price, as well.
“Everyone has ostracized me and they blame my human rights activity for the burden these security restrictions caused in their lives. Frankly, their lives have halted 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.”
Presuming Away A Problem
No one outside the Kuwaiti government knows the number of Bidoon living under security restrictions.. While lawyer Mohamed Al-Hamidi believes that it lies within in the thousands, the lawyer and activist, Muhammad Abdullah El-Enezi, thinks that the number varies. He explains this by saying: “The 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.”
And El-Enezi believes that most of these restrictions “are not justified by the Central Agency”.
Al-Enezi and Al-Hamidi have two different explanations of the Central 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 neighboring 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 means to minimize the Bidoon problem. The number of Bidoon is estimated at 100,000 people, which is rising steadily by births over the years. Al-Hamidi says, “Through security restrictions, the Agency can say that 10,000 Bidoon are Iraqis, 10,000 others 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”.
Constitutional and legal violations
To be forbidden to work, get an education and receive medical treatment, travel and obtain identification documents 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 in that because of 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-Felli. The transfer of these restrictions violate the basic legal concept, that is “there is no crime and no punishment without context.” Al-Felli elaborates: “The trail is not fair unless the right to defend yourself in court is respected, just as you cannot be the one making the accusation and be the judge at the same time, as this is not consistent with justice. Based on the current situation the Kuwaiti constitutional guarantees are being transgressed”.
Lawyer Al-Hamidi holds a similar view. He criticizes the concept of “imposing security restrictions without evidence, proof or even without confronting the people subject to those restrictions.” And he affirms 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. And 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 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 for 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 legislation was brought up in Kuwait’s Parliament regarding the Bidoon. The proposed law, which has 10 articles, stated that there are “advantages” to be provided to the Bidoon, that are in fact basic needs that some Bidoon are deprived of. But the proposed law stipulated that the Bidoon must show 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 show their other nationality, will enjoy the following benefits and will not be considered in violation of the Kuwaiti Residency laws:
- Free health care in all facilities of the Ministry of Health.
- Health care for people with special needs.
- Free education at all levels.
- Granting the ration card.
- Extracting and documenting all documents related to personal status matters and other identification documents.
- Obtaining driving licenses of all kinds in accordance with the regulations and rules in force.
- Working in private and public sectors in accordance with the applicable laws and regulations for foreigners working in Kuwait.
- Carrying out government transactions of all kinds.
- Carrying out commercial activities to obtain the required licenses.
- 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 Residence Law; and other relevant legislation apply on 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 centered 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 on Kuwait. The Central Agency 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 a hashtag, : وفد_الكويت_الكاذبwhich translates as “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 neighborhood, 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 of grandfathers to grandchildren, to include 35 people in total, which is the whole family. ”
This investigation was prepared with the support of a network from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and was supervised by Mukhtar Al-Ibrahim. General supervision by Saad Hattar.