Last Friday, Kuwaitis were treated to the spellbinding sight of balloon-like lanterns floating into the night sky. Yet the country had nothing special to celebrate. Rather, the lanterns were intended to draw attention to one of the oil-rich Gulf state’s least known problems: the existence of tens of thousands of “bedoun,” stateless residents with no status and few rights.
According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, Kuwait counts over 106,000 such bedoun, which means “without” in Arabic. Although many of these people were born in Kuwait or have lived there for generations, they have never had official citizenship. Today, they are granted special status under Kuwaiti law -- classified neither as citizens nor as foreigners. Under this status, bedouns have no social or economic rights, and thus remain a poor, marginalised underclass in one of the Gulf’s wealthiest countries.
Authorities say most of these bedoun are foreigners who entered the country illegally and destroyed their papers to pass as Kuwaitis and obtain citizenship. As a result, the government refuses to grant bedouns legal documents.
"Many bedoun are simply people who didn’t ask for citizenship when the country earned independence in 1961"
Omar al-Oraiman is a 21-year-old Kuwaiti student. He participated in the lantern float to raise awareness on the situation of bedouns.
The first effort [to raise awareness on the situation of bedouns] was a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #EQLB [in Arabic, “to turn upside down”] consisting of putting our Twitter photos upside-down. The operation lasted for one week.
During this campaign, web users proposed the idea that every person who wanted to express his or her solidarity with the bedouns should light a lantern, or "freedom balloon", and float it into the sky on July 29. On the same day, approximately one thousand citizens gathered by the seashore in Kuwait City to ask that bedouns be granted the same rights as Kuwaiti citizens. Despite the peaceful nature of this gathering, police forces were present. They even arrested four people, but didn’t bring them down to the station. They only questioned them for half an hour before releasing them.
When Kuwait began building its own administration in the 50s and 60s [the country won independence from Britain in 1961], part of the population didn’t bother asking for official citizenship. These people and their descendents are now paying the price for their own negligence, but also the government’s. Authorities at the time should have done what it took to register the entire population. Now, these bedoun are stateless persons -- citizens of no country.
At the same time, there is another category of bedoun: immigrants from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, many of whom came after the first Gulf War in 1990. These immigrants burned their papers so as to pass for stateless Kuwaiti residents and obtain citizenship.
Today, for reasons that are hard to understand, authorities are lumping the two groups into the same category, and refusing to deliver papers to anyone. They apparently refuse to take responsibility for the government’s past negligence.
"The issue of bedoun’s rights is a time bomb in Kuwait"
Concerning the immigrants, I understand that all of them can’t be granted citizenship. Nevertheless, authorities should take into account the fact that many of these bedoun have lived in Kuwait for a very long time, or have children who are born here. We are asking for them to have access to the same civic rights as regular citizens. Today bedouns can’t travel outside of the country. Their access to education is limited: they cannot enroll in universities. Many hospitals refuse to treat them. They have no legal documents (birth or marriage certificates) and very few employers will hire them. [According to Human Rights Watch, bedouns have recently been granted, by ministerial decree, access to health services and to birth and marriage certificates. Nevertheless, the organisation cautions that it has not been able to verify whether these new measures have effectively been implemented].
Most bedouns work in the private sector, often illegally. Many are self-employed, transporting cargo, for example. Their living conditions are below average. Even the bedoun veterans who participated in the 1967 Six-Day War aren’t treated in the same manner as their Kuwaiti counterparts: their monthly wage is 100 dinars [254 euros], while the others earn four times as much. That’s not enough to get by in Kuwait; it’s even less than the funding every university student in the country receives.
The issue of bedoun’s rights is a time bomb in Kuwait. It will explode if the government doesn’t do something about it, fast. We are protesting peacefully, but if authorities try to stop us from expressing ourselves, that will just add fuel to the fire.”
Video of the ‘freedom balloon’ launch published on YouTube.
Photo of a lantern set off by our Observer.
Post written with FRANCE24 journalist Sarra Grira.