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The state of the statelessness
By Chidi Emmanuel
Sitting quietly in a shanty house in Sulaibiya, 62-year-old Mohammed couldn’t contain his tears as he narrated his life and family ordeals as a bedoon (stateless resident). “You can see where and how we are living,” he said as he opened a small cubicle where he has been living with his family for over 12 years.
In a narrow alleyway near his house, Mohammed’s children (aged 5 to 12) could be seen playing football during school hours. When asked why, he said, “they can’t go school because they don’t have birth certificates and proper documents. This is a lost generation.”
As Mohammed showed Kuwait Times his house and a toilet made of corrugated iron sheets, his 7-year-old daughter Aisha rushed in, clutching a 250 fils note which she said was given to her by a passerby. “Our life is a daily struggle – no proper work, no proper healthcare, no school and no hope. Even when we die, we don’t get death certificates. My only and biggest dream is that my children will be recognized as humans one day,” he lamented.
Aisha, just like other bedoon children, yearns to go to school, but cannot because of her stateless status. Mohammed described their deplorable condition. “The kids – just like most bedoon kids – sell anything they can lay their hands on to help their families. Some of them turn to begging as the last resort,” he added, as he pointed out at some street children around the Sulaibiya neighborhood begging for alms.
Although child labor is not prevalent in Kuwait, it is becoming a growing trend as poor and stateless children take up odd jobs in order to help themselves and their families. Kuwait Times met Farouq, a 13-year-old stateless boy selling watermelons in Suliabiya. “He helps me most times. Instead of sitting at home, is better for him to assist me here in my business,” his father said.
Most bedoons face obstacles to obtain civil documentation, leaving them unable to get social services or function as normal members of society. The government provides certain handouts and ration cards for food allowances through government-run cooperatives. While some bedoons carry security identity cards to allow them to access these services, unregistered ones like Mohammed are excluded from these handouts.
The Bridge that divides us
“Stateless people face significantly greater obstacles. Some of the kids go to substandard private schools that exclusively serve bedoons, while a majority is left out completely. Some resort to informal and undependable work, such as selling fruits and vegetables on the street, manual labor and begging,” said Abdulhakim Al-Fadhli, a bedoon human rights activist.
At the end of the street near the stables’ area in Sulaibiya, a bedoon woman could be seen begging with her children. Later, on a pedestrian bridge in Taima in Jahra – another bedoon shantytown – Fadhli showed Kuwait Times what he described as “heaven” and “hell”. “This is the bridge that divides us,” he said, pointing at the other side where Kuwaitis live. “This beautiful area is called Naeem (which means paradise) and the other side with shanty houses, dilapidated structures and dirty environment is the purgatory where bedoons live,” said Fadhli, who has been jailed over 10 times.
Fadhli also took Kuwait Times to the Ministry of Education in Shuwaikh where some activists hold daily demonstrations to protest the expulsion of over 600 bedoon children from government schools. “There are different classes of bedoons – you have those that managed to go to school and have good jobs and those that are far below the poverty line. But one thing is common – they have no identity. They cannot vote or be voted for. They lack political and economic options. Statelessness means life without education, life without medical care, joblessness and life without prospects or hope,” Fadhli explained.
Recently, the UN refugee agency launched a global campaign aimed at ending the devastating legal limbo of statelessness, which affects millions of people around the world. According to a UN report, at least 10 million people worldwide are currently stateless and a baby is born stateless every 10 minutes. As part of its efforts to address the issues of statelessness, Kuwait’s government recently sealed a deal with the impoverished African island nation of Comoros.
According to the agreement, tens of thousands of stateless people in Kuwait will be offered Comoros citizenship. Those who accept the offer would be given free residence permits in Kuwait, in addition to a series of incentives like free education and healthcare and the right to employment. “This is a way of getting rid of us. It is a crime against humanity. We are not stateless, we are natives,” Fadhli said as he blasted the Comoros citizenship offer. There are over 140,000 stateless people in Kuwait.
Kuwait’s government describes these people as illegal residents, and says only 34,000 qualify for consideration for citizenship. The rest are considered natives of other countries who either migrated to Kuwait after the discovery of oil five decades ago or were born to these migrants. In the past three years, bedoons have held demonstrations to demand citizenship and other basic rights, and police have dispersed them using force, arresting hundreds who are on trial for illegal protests and assaulting police.