- Cecily Hilleary for VOA

It is an Arab Spring uprising that did not make it into the headlines. Last February, inspired by Tunisians and Egyptians, a few hundred of Kuwait’s stateless people also took to the streets. Unlike the other Arab Spring protesters, they weren’t looking to topple the government. Instead, they were demanding a basic right that almost everyone takes for granted: Citizenship.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters after their demonstrations turned violent. Last month, the rallies were revived. Dozens of activists have been arrested for what is being cited as illegal assembly and intent to commit criminal acts. A total of 52 Bidun are now on trial and another 32 are under investigation.

In mid-January, Kuwait’s Interior Ministry issued statements threatening deportation for any Bidun – or their family members – caught demonstrating. The government is also considering other punitive measures, such as dismissing stateless protesters who serve in the military or police and evicting them from public housing projects. Kuwait says it will also confiscate security IDs, the only form of identification stateless residents are allowed, and refuse all pending applications for naturalization.

“A boat without a port”

According to Refugees International, stateless people can be found all over the world – the Roma in Europe, Palestinian refugees, minority Muslims in Asia. In Kuwait and other countries of the Arabian Peninsula, the stateless are called Bidun, which translates literally from Arabic as “without.” Some Bidun are descendants of nomadic Bedouins who roamed the deserts of the Gulf long before modern borders were established. After Kuwait achieved independence in the early 1960s, many Bidun failed to register, for one reason or another, to apply for citizenship, a concept largely alien to nomadic peoples.

Other Bidun include Palestinians or refugees who fled Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Refugees International estimates that as many as 120,000 Bidun now reside in Kuwait, but because they aren’t citizens, they are ineligible for birth certificates, drivers’ licenses and civil ID cards that function as work permits. They are also denied free health care, the right to vote, marry or buy property, as well as the cradle-to-grave social benefits naturalized Kuwaitis enjoy in this oil-rich nation.

Many, like Kuwaiti blogger and activist Mona Kareem, say they are systematically discriminated against and ostracized: In my case, my family’s been here for generations. My dad and my grandpa were born in Kuwait. They have all the documents proving that we have Kuwaiti relatives. According to Kuwaiti law, we are completely eligible to be naturalized, but we haven’t been.

Kareem says that Bidun today face tremendous discrimination in Kuwaiti society. “My generation, we have been isolated, we have been mistreated, disrespected, humiliated, denied very simple rights, marked. We’ve felt underrepresented – all these things, through media, among certain communities.” In short, says Kareem, it’s a little like being “a boat without a port.” This, she says, impacts all areas of their lives and leads to a general feeling of hopelessness.

It wasn’t always so

Thirty years ago, according to a Human Rights Watch report, Prisoners of the Past, Kuwait’s Bidun, even as non-citizens, were enjoying most of the benefits of full citizenship, including subsidized housing, health care and schooling. But as the political landscape of the region began to change in the mid-1980s, things began to change. The government began stripping them of most of their privileges and re-classified them as “illegal residents.”

“In 1986,” Kareem said, “the government made this decision, which was the turning point. They decided that they did not wish to give the Bidun equal treatment to citizens. Officially, they didn’t offer any reasons, but the reasons most commonly believed is that they wanted to stop wasting national funds on people who were not citizens.”

Kareem says the process was so gradual that, at first, no one noticed. “They started with, for example, not allowing people to go into public education, and then, it got worse and worse, especially in the 90s, when people were deprived of all their rights. From then till now, people don’t get any rights to documents, education, healthcare and employment.”

Sara Leigh Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, says it was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that really cemented the fate of Kuwait’s Bidun:

The government felt that some segments of the Bidun community had not been loyal to Kuwait during the country’s invasion, and also subsequent to the invasion, it started accusing some Bidun of having actually had Iraqi nationality.

Kuwait’s government has promised for years to address the problem. But at the same time, it has accused most of the Bidun of being imposters, i.e. Iranian or Iraqi refugees who have hidden or destroyed their passports in an attempt to cash in on the generous benefits of Kuwait citizenship.

And what benefits they are: This small nation the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey boasts crude oil reserves of nearly 105 billion barrels – approximately 8% of world reserves. Kuwait’s 1.6 million of official citizens enjoy marriage bonuses, housing loans, virtually guaranteed employment, free medical services, education – from kindergarten to university – and retirement income.

Exceptions few and far between

The United Nations Refugee Committee reports that back in May of 2000, Kuwait granted citizenship to roughly 36,000 Bidun who had resided there since before 1965. A year later, the same rights were extended to Bidun husbands of Kuwaiti women. Since then, however, Kuwait has granted citizenship only sporadically and arbitrarily. Whitson says at least 100,000 petitions for citizenship are still pending, but she believes the government of Kuwait has done little except push the problem under the rug.

“They have formed committee after committee to investigate the citizenship claims of the Bidun, and every few years there will be a new committee that’s established that makes promises to review the cases,” she said. “The latest committee has itself said that for about 30,000 of these Bidun, there’s no dispute about their citizenship. They’re not claiming that they have any alternative citizenship. But in fact, in any given year, they’ve never approved more than 2,000 new citizens.”

Many petitions for even basic security identification papers are denied, says Whitson, on the basis of “secret evidence” which the Bidun are not able to review or challenge.

Kuwait says that only 34,000 Bidun are actually eligible to be naturalized.

VOA requested in writing to interview the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States or a spokesperson, but has not received a response.

Kuwait is scheduled to hold parliament elections February 2. Its stateless residents will not be able to vote.