“Nothing But a Pen and a Word”: Voices from the Stateless Bidoon Community in Kuwait During the Covid-19 Pandemic
In September 2022, SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR) and Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) finalised a report that explores the life experiences of members of Kuwait’s stateless Bidoon community during the Covid-19 pandemic, from its emergence around March 2020 to around January 2022. It provides a qualitative snapshot of the lives of those who took part in the project by exploring whether and how their experiences have been shaped by their socio-legal status and what the impact of that experience was.
The study found that over the course of Covid-19 pandemic in Kuwait, on account of the longstanding legal status and imposed, widespread lack of official documentation, members of the stateless Kuwaiti Bidoon community could not immediately access healthcare at all times; and when members of the community could access healthcare, it was generally later – sometimes months later in respect to access to vaccination – than provision made to citizens, or of an inferior quality. Provision of healthcare oft times appeared to ignore specific vulnerabilities, such as co-morbidities and/or social factors that put the stateless at greater risk than citizens and access to healthcare, notably vaccination, via online registration was diminished due to documentation requirements that scores if not hundreds or even many hundreds of stateless persons did not have.
On account of their legal status, at the same time, members of the Bidoon community experienced unstable, generally poorly remunerated work and other social deprivations commensurate with their legal status.
Amidst the public health crisis, the government body responsible for the administration of the stateless Bidoon community carried out what appears to have been industrial-scale falsification of identity documents in order to change the legal status of Kuwaiti Bidoon. Widely called the Central System, its practices appeared to be in contravention of Kuwaiti law and yet, as an effectively autonomous agency, its conduct appears to have escaped oversight and accountability. Its actions, alongside others taken by the Kuwaiti authorities, appear to have been aimed at reducing the documented existence of stateless persons in Kuwait, without providing a reasonable or internationally recognisable pathway to nationalisation.
The results of this study indicate that, taken together, scores, hundreds or even thousands of stateless people appear to have suffered tremendous economic and psychological hardship during the pandemic, including in the course of successive lockdowns during which they faced unstable employment; did not have access to broadly analogous forms of socio-economic support as that accorded to citizens. Accordingly, the impact of Covid-19 on Kuwait’s stateless Bidoon community was proportionally more widespread and more intense than that experienced by counterparts with Kuwaiti citizenship.
Amongst its recommendations, Salam DHR and ISI call on the Government of Kuwait (GoK) to:
- Re-assess and re-evaluate its entire approach in respect to its engagement with the Bidoon community, including by committing to abide by internationally binding human rights treaties, such as by taking objectively verifiable measures to implement treaty body recommendations;
- Take steps to end all discriminatory and arbitrary restrictions and limitations currently applied to stateless Bidoons, in keeping with contemporaneous measures regarding their legal status;
- Immediately abolish the Central System and bring its functions under state bodies applicable to citizens;
- In consultation with national and international civil society, as well as intergovernmental bodies and experts, determine and publish clear, objectively verifiable assessment criteria for Kuwaiti citizenship; and
- Create an independent pathway in line with international standards that enables non-citizens in Kuwait to apply for citizenship, with a right of appeal where rejected.
The organisations urge the international community, including intergovernmental (IGO) bodies, to:
- Remind the GoK of its international human rights obligations and maintain pressure on the GoK with regard to its treatment of the Bidoon community, notably by engaging in good faith with IGOs’ treaty bodies in order to end statelessness and the corruption and suffering it creates.
‘Together we can’ – a roadmap towards empowerment
A total of 71% of the respondents to a project questionnaire believed it would not be possible for the Bidoon community to take political action in Kuwait. Most respondents claimed they feared being imprisoned if they protested, leaving them feeling powerless within the country. One respondent said that the Bidoon are ‘shackled and have nothing but a pen and a word’.
One of the core goals of the project has been to provide a voice to stateless Kuwaitis. At the same time, too, 62% of respondents to the project survey said they believed that international organisations can help the Bidoon community. Amongst other recommendations, they called on international human rights groups and the wider community to:
- Work to ensure equality between citizens and Bidoon;
- Increase advocacy for the citizenship rights of the Bidoon community;
- Treat reports from the GoK and the Central System with a degree of scepticism and mobilise to create a more accurate narrative of the Kuwaiti Bidoon community, including with respect to births, marriages, deaths; health and education data; and
- Coordinate with sympathetic (Kuwaiti) parliamentarians, lawyers, the Bar Association, and with women in the community to advocate for human rights issues.
Salam DHR and ISI urge the Government of Kuwait (GoK) and stakeholders to review and consider the Ten Calls to Action in ISI’s Together We Can report, as applicable to Kuwait.
The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) created the CESF, or Fund in June 2020, to respond to the ‘life threatening marginalisation, with potentially disastrous consequences’, that stateless people faced in the context of COVID-19, as warned of in the joint civil society statement In solidarity with the stateless, issued by 84 organisations in June 2020. Many of the concerns articulated in the joint statement were in turn documented and evidenced in ISI’s 2020 Impact Report, entitled Stateless in a Global Pandemic, also published in June 2020.