Post Author: Anne Layton, Arabic Flagship Program student
In 1961, Kuwait gained its independence from Britain and a third of its population became stateless. Prior to independence, Kuwait’s Nationality Law gave nationality to anyone who could prove that his/her family had lived in Kuwait before 1920 and up to the enactment of the law. The people who did not prove this before indepence no longer had a nationality. This group of people came to be known as the Bidoon (بدون) or without, and today make up around 10% of Kuwait’s population.
Initially, not having a nationality did not bring with it too many disadvantages and they were treated relatively well compared to the rest of the population. From the mid-1980s and on, however, they faced increasing restrictions. In 1986, the government declared them ‘illegal residents’ and began firing them from their jobs, removing their access to free education, housing, and healthcare. The government also tried to deport large numbers of the community. Another large issue occurred during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At the time, a majority of the army was composed of Bidoon, so Kuwaitis used them to take the blame for any military difficulties, and later, massive amounts of Bidoon were dismissed from the military.
Currently, the Bidoons’ situation has not improved greatly. The government thinks of them as foreigners attempting to take advantage of Kuwait’s welfare system despite the fact that a majority have always lived in Kuwait. This complicates any attempts to acquire identification papers or reference cards because they must get government approval, and in my instances, the government refuses because they claim to have intelligence to suggest the the people have other nationalities. Additionally, they still do not have access to public schools. If they want to send their children to school, it must be a private one which costs money. Often, families have to choose between sending a daughter or son, and usually the son is allowed to go to school. Another problem is with employment. They face greater discrimination, have lower salaries, and lower job security, which leads many to work selling fruit or other informal ways to earn money. However, they face the threat of constant arrest because they do not have commercial licenses.
Following the Arab Spring, the Bidoon took to the streets of Kuwait to protest their treatment. The government made their protests illegal, but promised some concessions. Little has actually been done to implement these concessions, though. As the world becomes more aware of the plight of the Bidoon, Kuwait faces greater censure for their treatment of this minority group. It remains to be seen if the pressure will finally cause Kuwait to reconsider the status of their citizenship.