Being “without” – Who are the Bidoon of Kuwait?

By Dana Affleck | 09 Jul 12

By Dana Affleck

In Kuwait today, there are at least 106,000 Bidoon living in a state of “without”. Bidoon, who are also referred to as Bidun, Bedoon and Bedoun (distinct from Bedouins who are a nomads), are a social group of Kuwaiti residents whose status is currently described by Kuwaiti officials as “illegal residents”; they are effectively stateless. The term Bidoon is best described as a construction of the Kuwaiti Government, members of this group are not part of it voluntarily. On the contrary, membership of the Bidoon is unintentional and unwanted. Over time, it has developed into a classification forced upon its members. Today, this construction by the Kuwaiti Government is used to marginalise and oppress the Bidoon.

I became acquainted with two Bidoon men when I visited the Maribyrnong detention centre for the first time in 2010. Initially when they told me they were from Kuwait I was surprised knowing the wealth and resources of the small country. I began racking my brain for any political or religious circumstances existing in Kuwait that could drive men to flee and leave behind all they knew and loved. Once we became closer friends, they began to share their stories with me. At first, I didn’t totally believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t understand how such deliberate and illogical human rights abuses could be systematically carried out, unbeknown to the world. Once I began seeking information, I realised the plight of the Bidoon has been swept under the carpet for decades. Since my first visit, I have come across more and more men from Kuwait, all Bidoon, all fighting for their existence to be recognised and with it, to be granted the same rights and freedoms that should come with any human existence.

In Australia Bidoon seeking asylum face an uphill battle proving their identity. The impossibility is that they must do so without having proof that they have ever existed. Their status haunts them wherever they go and in some cases where the plight of the Bidoon is misunderstood or leads the immigration department to wrongly assume the Bidooni is of another nationality, it can result in the failure of their asylum claim. In light of opposition leader Tony Abbott’s declaration that it should be assumed that asylum seekers coming to Australian shores without identification have destroyed their genuine documents, Bidoon claims will be compromised due to their inability to produce them.

The Bidoon

Directly translated from Arabic, “Bidoon” means “without” and is used to refer to being without a state. However, as time has passed, it is clear that a state isn’t the only thing that the Bidoon are without.

The status of the Bidoon is a barrier to basic rights and liberties including the right to work, to be educated, to have access to health care and the right to a nationality – rights and liberties that should be enjoyed by all humans and are enjoyed by all other Kuwaiti residents. All this in light of the fact that Kuwait is a very wealthy nation, economically equipped to include the Bidoon into their society and to give them the rights available to the rest of the population.

Samy, a Bidoon refugee now living in Sydney, explains the need for money to get access to healthcare that is available to other Kuwaitis: “the Bidoon can’t access doctor or hospital unless they can pay for private. If you are not allowed to get job, how can you get money? If you have no money, how can you pay the doctor?”

“If you are not allowed to get job, how can you get money? If you have no money, how can you pay the doctor?”

How did this happen?

In the lead up to its independence in 1961, the Kuwaiti Government wished to register all of its residents and citizens. In 1959, they established a new law setting out the parameters of eligibility for Kuwaiti nationality. To be eligible for nationality, the resident must have settled in Kuwait and have maintained residency there since 1920. The government made a genuine attempt to identify and register all residents who were eligible.

However, hundreds of thousands of eligible residents fell through the cracks. Many of them –predominantly of Bedouin origin and living in isolated regions of Kuwait – did not know about the government’s program, were illiterate or did not have the necessary written identity records. Furthermore, many residents didn’t understand the program, which was quite a foreign concept, and couldn’t predict the dire consequences non-registration would have on their lives and the lives of their family over 50 years later.

Faisal, a Bidoon man who sought asylum in Australia in mid-2010, said “My family were living in desert as Bedouins, they are not reading and writing, they don’t know what’s the reason for these papers”.

As a result, residents who didn’t register were classified as “legal residents without nationality”. Claims made by eligible residents after the initial registration period were not finalised. However, despite the issues on paper, up until the 1980s, the undetermined status in practice changed little in the day-to-day lives of the Bidoon as their rights and liberties were almost entirely upheld as if they had been registered.

When war broke out between Iran and Iraq in 1980, internal instability in Kuwait followed. In the following years the combination of terrorist attacks and an assassination attempt on the Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah intensified the atmosphere of insecurity and mistrust. This atmosphere triggered the type of xenophobia that often arises in society in a climate of fear and the Bidoon fell victim to it. From those xenophobic sentiments came the first anti-Bidoon policy – the status of the Bidoon was officially changed from “legal residents without nationality” to “illegal residents”.

“People found out as the Government started kicking Bidoon people out of the school, the army and from all their jobs and do not let them go to the hospitals,” explains Faisal. Samy recalls, “We did not know what was going on. You ask why, no answer.”

This was coupled with legislative reforms banning courts from ruling on claims involving citizenship and the status of Bidoon, which prevented unsuccessful claims being appealed, giving absolute discretionary powers to the government. At this point in time, 250,000 Bidoon were officially recorded. It is important to reiterate that up until this point the government recognised their legitimate eligibility to Kuwaiti nationality. The switch of their status from legal to illegal was not based on fact.

The switch of their status from legal to illegal was not based on fact.

“The Government have the power, they can do anything,” says Faisal.

The invasion of Iraq into Kuwait in 1990 and the war of liberation that ensued only entrenched existing attitudes of mistrust and suspicion towards the Bidoon. Many Kuwaitis feared that Iraqi infiltrators could easily blend in with the Bidoon or that the Bidoon themselves were traitors. The invasion also caused many Bidoon to flee to neighbouring Arab states outside of Kuwait’s borders and once the war was over, the Bidoon who had fled were refused re-entry due to their “illegal resident”status. After the war, the recorded number of Bidoon was halved to 125,000, indicating the number of displaced and killed Bidoon as a result of the invasion.

Samy angrily tells of injustice of fallen Bidoon soldiers: “Some Bidoon men die for their country and their country give them no rights, all for nothing.”

Attitudes towards Bidoon markedly deteriorated during the 1980s and 1990s, and they continue despite the fact that the underlying causes for such attitudes were no longer prevalent in Kuwait. Anyone who attempts to advocate for the Bidoon risks detention. Furthermore, public demonstrations will trigger a violent reaction by the Kuwaiti authorities to the protesters. Bidoons face higher risks; they can be detained indefinitely or have themselves and their families scratched off the list of registered Bidoon, losing the very few rights they have.

Faisal describes the fear preventing many Bidoon from protesting, “my uncles and aunties they didn’t go to the protests because they are very scared because the Government finishes the protests by force”.

Types of Bidoon

Bidoon are either (1) descendants of residents eligible for citizenship but who failed to register for reasons previously discussed, (2) a child of a marriage between a Kuwaiti national woman and a Bidooni man or (3) an individual and their family from another state recruited by Kuwait in the 1960s to migrate to the country work in the army or police force who later settled in Kuwait.

The first category of Bidoon is simply the result of bureaucracy around the time of Kuwait’s independence, combined with determination being held up by arbitrary administration and finally the marginalisation of this group entrenched by xenophobia.  What is ironic is that the choice by eligible Kuwaiti residents before independence was purely personal or based on personal circumstances and was not impacted by ethnic ties, religious beliefs or necessarily by wealth. Therefore it is very common for a Kuwaiti citizen to be directly and closely related to a Bidoon. The discrimination faced by the Bidoon is purely a result of political administration.

The discrimination faced by the Bidoon is purely a result of political administration.

The second group is a result of legislated sexism. Kuwaiti law allows a Kuwaiti male citizen to pass on his citizenship to his children despite the mother being a Bidoon. Conversely, a Kuwaiti female citizen may not pass her citizenship to her children if the father is a Bidoon.

The final group of Bidoon fall outside the law’s definition of a citizen and were never given a legal residential status. However, they make up a small proportion of the Bidoon. This is a more controversial type of Bidoon given the Kuwaiti Government’s encouragement of their migration for its own benefit. They were registered as Bidoon due to the politically sensitive issues surrounding their migration. The government did not wish for the states the migrants came from to become aware of their movement and by classifying them as illegal residents, they never officially migrated. This situation was never rectified and now these migrants and their families have lost all meaningful ties with their countries of origin and consider Kuwait home.

Bidoon Registration

The Kuwaiti Government expects Bidoon to register themselves officially as Bidooni in order to obtain a security card. This card is used to circumvent problems of labelling individuals as “illegal residents” by preventing detention or deportation. However, the cards must be renewed either yearly or every two years which is at the absolute discretion of the governing body of all Bidoon matters, the Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status (“the Bidoon committee”) which was set up in 2010.

Often Bidoon will apply for a renewal for themselves or their children and they will be refused without reason or due to the committee claiming that they have confirmed that they are citizens of another country. These claims are very rarely supported with evidence and due to legislation banning court involvement they cannot be appealed or investigated. Unregistered Bidoon (Bidoon without security cards) often live in self-imposed confinement, as they fear they will be detained or deported if authorities catch them. This is a rights abuse faced by unregistered Bidoon in addition to abuses that registered Bidoon already face.

“Unspecified Nationality”

With the last official record of Bidoons at 106,000, the Kuwaiti Government has declared that of them, 34,000 are still eligible for citizenship and 68,000 are citizens of other countries illegally residing in Kuwait. Those with “unspecified nationality” have been given three years from November 2010 to come forward and declare their “true” nationality or face legal action. As that period is not up yet, it remains to be seen what form this legal action will take.

Many Bidoon have found that sourcing an illegal passport from another country was the only solution to getting work to support themselves and their families.

Many Bidoon have found that sourcing an illegal passport from another country was the only solution in order to work to support themselves and their families. “We get fake passports to survive”, Samy explains. Some passports were totally counterfeit whilst others were genuine passports purchased on the black market. “The Government push the Bidoon to get fake passports. They know they are fakes but the Government accepts them – anything to make the Bidoon not their problem,” says Samy.

However, the use of these passports meant that the Bidoon committee listed them as being of the nationality of their fake passport. When they went to renew their fake passport and it was destroyed by authorities, or they were unable to source another, they lost their status as a Bidoon and the Kuwaiti Government insisted that they were in fact nationals of another country. Many Bidoon face this problem and are now in an even more precarious position with even fewer rights than they had before. For example, if the Bidoon in question illegally obtained an Iraqi passport, the obvious issue is that Iraq would have no record of that Bidoon and would not accept Kuwait deporting them to Iraq, and yet Kuwait insists they have “proof” the Bidoon is Iraqi. This leaves the Bidoon stateless, a status that impacts on every facet of their lives. Many Bidoon live without rights or liberties and without a means to support themselves and their families. On top of this, they face the risk of detention or “deportation”.

Seeking Asylum in Australia

A number of Bidoon are seeking asylum or have acquired refugee status and have been granted a visa. However, the road to a protection visa is not easy in Australia, particularly when you are a Bidoon. The first hurdle to overcome is how to identify yourself when you are stateless. Bidoon have no way to identify themselves or prove that they even exist. Furthermore, a Bidoon classified by the Kuwaiti Government as having another nationality or being of “unspecified nationality” creates a situation in which it is the asylum seeker’s word against the word of the Kuwaiti Government. These issues can result in years in detention or a rejection based on the Kuwaiti Government’s fictitious records of the individual.

Bidoon have no way to identify themselves or prove that they even exist

Why Australia?

There are a variety of reasons why Bidoon seek refuge in Australia. Faisal said he believed Australia to be a “good, strong country” and “famous for human rights”. It seems that the perception of Australia is of a welcoming, multicultural and friendly nation. Refugees believe that our country will understand their plight and help them escape a persecuted past. Every asylum seeker is desperate to start a new life – get a job, raise their family, contribute to the community that let them in and live with dignity, self-respect and pride.

We can only hope that they have the chance to live this life and that the country they describe is true of Australia.

Where to now?

Since protests broke out amidst widespread unrest in the Middle East in early 2011, the Kuwaiti Government has made promises of some reform and for more rights to be given to the Bidoon. Such promises are yet to be translated into anything tangible and the life of the Bidoon remains unchanged. Statelessness is a violation of human rights and its use by the Kuwaiti Government to bar the Bidoon from numerous other human rights is an atrocity.  For Bidoon seeking asylum in Australia, it is important that our government gains a better understanding of the internal issues occurring in Kuwait, the history behind the constructed statelessness and the conditions forcing the Bidoon to flee.

Statelessness is a violation of human rights and its use by the Kuwaiti Government to bar the Bidoon from numerous other human rights is an atrocity.

A Bidoon asylum seeker in community detention in Victoria, Hassan, explained his desperation to leave Kuwait and the danger he was willing to face by taking a life threatening boat ride to Australia – “if I die in the sea, that’s it. I would already die in my country.”

Samy concluded “if you are born Bidoon, forget it – you have no rights. That’s it, you stay forever a Bidoon.”

For further information on the Bidoon please see:

Dana Affleck is a student from Melbourne with a strong interest in human rights issues, particularly those of refugees. She recently started studying law at Deakin University and is continuing her Arabic language studies, to further that interest. She regularly visits detention centres both on the outskirts of Melbourne and interstate. Her friendships with Samy and Faisal and the many others she has met in detention dictate to her the importance of widespread knowledge of the plight of the Bidoon. She looks forward to seeing a change in public and government policy towards refugees and their wonderful contribution to the community in the near future.