Kuwait’s announcement that tens of thousands of stateless people will be offered citizenship of the impoverished African nation of Comoros has highlighted their decades-old plight. But a representative of the community whose members demand Kuwaiti citizenship rejected the government’s offer as “totally impractical”.
The stateless people, known as bedoons, insist they were born and raised in Kuwait and thus have full rights to claim citizenship. Kuwait says a majority of the bedoons belong to other countries and that only 34,000 of them qualify for consideration of citizenship after meeting a set of stringent conditions.
The state insists it has documented evidence to prove its claims, saying the bedoons are mainly from neighbouring Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as a few thousand from Iran, Jordan and Syria.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International slammed the move, saying in a statement it is “a shameless betrayal of Kuwait’s international human rights obligations”. “It is shocking that authorities in Kuwait would try to resolve the long-standing issue of the bedoons’ statelessness and discrimination by mass purchasing another country’s ‘economic citizenship’,” said Amnesty’s Said Boumedouha.
The bedoons numbered 106,000 in 2011, according a Human Rights Watch report based on Kuwaiti government statistics. The figures show that while 34,000 bedoons qualify for consideration of citizenship, 42,000 are Iraqis, 26,000 are of other nationalities, mainly Saudi, and the status of 4,000 is unknown. The government based its findings on secret information which it refuses to share, HRW said.
Kuwait says apart from those eligible to apply for citizenship, other bedoons or their ancestors crossed into the country illegally and destroyed their passports in order to gain access to generous welfare programs, including free housing.
The secretary general of the Kuwaiti Bedoons Committee, Nawaf Al-Bader, said none of the 34,000 identified as eligible three years ago have been granted citizenship. “Government claims that bedoons belong to other countries are false and unsubstantiated. If these claims were true, why has the government not deported them,” said Bader, a bedoon himself. The actual number of bedoons was much higher than official figures, he said, with between 40,000 and 50,000 of them unregistered.
A few years ago, the government established a special agency to resolve the bedoon problem and named it the Central Agency for Illegal Residents, the official name of bedoons in Kuwait. After years of depriving them of basic rights, the government recently started offering bedoons some services. It has started appointing them as public school teachers and allowing some to seek private sector employment.
It has been paying school fees for thousands of bedoon children whose fathers are registered, as well as issuing them birth, marriage and death certificates. But Bader insists the services have not been offered to all bedoons as many remain deprived and live in “misery”. Parliament has repeatedly passed legislation allowing the government to naturalise 4,000 bedoons each year, but most of the laws have not been implemented.
Authorities have given no indication of the potential cost of the Comoros deal, but activists on social networks claim it would amount to billions of dollars. But Bader said offering bedoons Comoros citizenship was “totally impractical” and that Sunday’s announcement was met with “anger and rejection” by his community. Comoros is an archipelago state located off eastern Africa and is a member of the Arab League. A member of parliament’s human rights committee, MP Faisal Al-Duwaisan, described the move as “very grave” and vowed to question the prime minister if the government implements the decision.
For the past three years, police have broken up with force bedoon protests calling for citizenship and other basic rights. Hundreds have been arrested and put on trial accused of illegal demonstrations and assaulting police.
Lawmaker Nabil Al-Fadhl in April proposed sending to a desert camp stateless people convicted of breaching public security and protesting. In an unprecedented move in 2012, Refugees International, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International jointly wrote a letter to HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, highlighting the plight of bedoons and urging an end to their alleged abuse. “All bedoons born in Kuwait should be recognised as citizens, and those who have resided in the country for a reasonable amount of time should be eligible to apply for citizenship and acquire citizenship,” they said.