The word ‘Bidoon’ refers to a diverse group of people in Kuwait who at the time of the country's move to independence were not given nationality. When the British ended the protectorate in 1961, about one-third of the population was given nationality on the grounds of being ‘founding fathers’ of the new state, another third were naturalised as citizens, and the rest were considered to be bidoon jinsiya—or ‘without nationality’. The exact number of Bidoon is unknown but estimates range from 93,000 to 180,000, which amount to about ten percent of the Kuwaiti population.
Kuwait is not addressing the statelessness issue, and the vast majority of the Bidoon lack even the most basic civil rights, such as obtaining birth certificates and sending their children to school. To complicate the matter, Kuwait’s government does not recognise the Bidoon as stateless under international law and maintains that even new generations can acquire a nationality – for instance from Iraq and Saudi Arabia – whereas this is not straightforward. In particular, the argument becomes even more problematic as the nationality laws of surrounding countries confer nationality to children of nationals but not explicitly to their grandchildren.
Antigovernment protests have been taking place in the Bidoon populated areas but the government has been cracking down on free speech and demonstrations, using provisions in the Constitution, national security law, and other legislation to control any political dissent.
The lack of citizenship and protection of Bidoon is an important humanitarian issue which forces them to migrate for safety and better life to Canada, the United Kingdom (UK) and other European countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand. However, Kuwaiti Bidoon have been facing many difficulties and obstacles to enjoy rights in these countries as well, including the UK.
Part of the problem in the UK stems from the Home Office’s incorrect assessment of who deserves protection under the asylum or statelessness frameworks. The HO’ s approach is based on the UK Country Guidance, which decision-makers use to assess country conditions, and which distinguishes between documented and undocumented Bidoon. The Guidance states that documented Bidoon are registered with the ‘Bidoon Committee’ and have received ‘security cards’ or ‘green cards’ and thus have some rights, such as healthcare, and access to employment, while undocumented Bidoon have not been registered and have no rights and therefore face arbitrary arrest and detention. The Guidance takes the position that undocumented Bidoon are at risk of persecution and therefore deserve a grant of asylum. The current distinction is problematic: on one side it excludes many Kuwaiti Bidoon who hold a security card but nevertheless face persecution, for example by not drawing attention to whether they have been taken part in protests or activities against the government. Moreover, the cards issued by the government are far from granting rights equally given to nationals. Discrimination and persecution against Bidoon continues and the Guidance does not address this properly (for instance a Bidoon cannot register any property in their name and even those who are documented do not equally benefit from the rights mentioned in the Guidance). On the other side, it opens the door to exploitation of the system as it encourages non-Bidoons to adopt the ‘non-documented Kuwaiti Bidoon’ narrative to obtain status.
The reality is that Kuwaiti Bidoon have been residing in Kuwait for over 50 years and it is unlikely that they do not have any documents. Indeed, as the government has tried to facilitate the regularisation of Bidoon status, not being able to identify oneself would put the person at risk of detention or deportation. Therefore, possession of some kind of identification document should be an essential condition for the credibility of an applicant. By accepting individuals who claim to be stateless based on the lack of documentation, the Home Office deprives those of protection, who are able to prove through their documents that they really are stateless, refusing their claim and deporting them back to Kuwait where they face arrest and risk of torture.
Thus the HO’ s distinction between the two groups of Kuwaiti Bidoon has only led to complications in identifying who really should be recognised as a refugee or stateless person, and as a consequence it has created a number of failed asylum seekers who have remained in the UK for many years without status. Several Kuwaiti Bidoon who regularly visit the Kuwaiti Community Association in London seeking help and assistance have been refused their cases more than 10 years ago. They have been left in limbo without any accommodation and financial support, they have no right to study and no right to work and are often sleeping either in mosques, churches, or with friends. The new statelessness determination procedure has failed them, as many applicants were refused and others have been waiting for over a year and a half to receive their decision.
Even if a stateless Bidoon is recognized to be a refugee, the problems are not over. Another important issue is obtaining family reunion, which allows the individual to be joined by the pre-flight spouse and children under the age of 18. However, in the last two years the Kuwaiti Community has seen many family reunion applications refused on the grounds that there were no satisfactory documents showing the relationship between the applicants and the sponsor refugee. In some cases, the courts ruled against the embassies’ refusal to grant family reunion but long delays have followed and these cases have not been resolved yet.
Because it is so difficult to obtain refugee or stateless status, some Bidoon have tried to obtain leave to remain on different grounds from asylum or statelessness, for instance, based on their British children or partner. However, the difficulty in these cases is that after they have been granted leave to remain, they are denied travel documents from the Home Office, even though they don’t have a passport. As they did not apply for international protection, they are not entitled to receive travel documents that would normally be issued under the Refugee Convention or the Convention relating to the status of stateless persons, and they remain stuck in the UK.
The Home Office attitude towards the Bidoon has a partial explanation in the relations and economic ties with Kuwait. Kuwait’s vast oil reserves give it a prominent voice in the economic fora, international relations and organisations. As an example of the cooperation between Kuwait and the UK, a few weeks ago, the Home Office invited the Ministry of Interior’s Assistant Undersecretary for Citizenship and Residency Affairs Major General Mazen Al-Jarrah Al-Sabah to join in an effort to improve security coordination and exchange of information regarding the Kuwaiti Bidoon who are seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. The meeting had been preceded by earlier cooperation, when the Home Office had requested help from the Kuwaiti government to clarify the identity of Bidoon people arriving in the UK, and a meeting in June 2014, when Mazen Al Jarrah met with security officials from the UK Home Office to discuss 800 people claiming to be Bidoon from Kuwait. This kind of cooperation puts many lives at risk and is in breach of the international obligations of the UK.
The UK government’s current efforts to protect the Bidoon refugees are not sufficient. Genuine efforts would include a fair assessment of their request for rights, either in the form of asylum, statelessness or family reunion applications. Moreover, the adoption of a more professional, informed and sympathetic approach towards Kuwaiti Bidoon is necessary as they are denied rights in their own home country and face constant fear of refoulement.