The government of Kuwait is considering granting the Bidoon — a group of stateless Arabs descended from nomadic Bedouins — citizenship in Comoros, an African nation that is nearly 3,000 miles away from their ancestral homeland.
In April, the Kuwaiti government estimated that there were 108,000 pending applications for citizenship from the Bidoon — a group they label "illegal residents." According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, the Bidoon "live under the radar of normal society, vulnerable and without protection." They have historically been denied essential documentation by the Kuwaiti government, limiting their access to education and employment.
The Human Rights Watch report criticized Kuwait for denying citizenship to the Bidoon, saying the country has instead created, "a straightjacket of regulations that leave them in poverty and extreme uncertainty."
Maj. Gen. Mazen al-Jarrah, an official in Kuwait's interior ministry, told a local newspaper Sunday that the citizenship process will begin when a Comoros embassy opens in the Gulf state. The government will offer residence permits to Bidoon who accept the offer, allowing them to remain in Kuwait indefinitely, but forcing them to renounce their claims for Kuwaiti citizenship.
'What this is about is Kuwait not wanting to share its oil wealth with people who should be considered citizens.'
The disputed group are predominantly descendants of the Bedouin people, a desert-dwelling Arabian ethnic group. Most settled in Kuwait decades ago, both before and after the country gained independence in 1961. Their name is derived from the Arabic "bedoun jinsiyya," which literally means "without nationality."
Their attempts to gain official recognition from Kuwait have consistently failed. Many Bidoon have been issued security cards, but those who remain undocumented are denied access to basic medical treatment, housing, documentation, education, and drivers licenses. They can be deported at any time.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that he first met with Kuwaiti Bidoons right after the first Gulf War, two decades ago.
"What this is about is Kuwait not wanting to share its oil wealth with people who should be considered citizens," Roth said. "And this latest idea — offloading the problem to a country that most Bidoon probably couldn't find on the map, let alone have ever lived in —is not an adequate answer to Kuwait's responsibility to give citizenship."
Comoros is a chain of volcanic islands off the southeast coast of Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar. Sixty percent of its residents live below the poverty line, and 80 percent of those who are employed work in agriculture.
In Kuwait — an oil-rich nation — poverty is non-existent among citizens, although the statistics ignore those who are not considered Kuwaitis.
Roth said that the relationship between Kuwait and Comoros is clear: "It's a wealthy country paying off a poor country in order to offload its citizenship obligations," he said. "Kuwait is a small country, and they're not eager to divide up their financial and economic pie."
Kuwait's announcement comes close to the launch of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) campaign to end statelessness. Last week, the UN refugee agency announced a plan to eradicate statelessness within 10 years. They estimate that there are currently 10 million stateless people living in the world, meaning a child is born without a nationality every 10 minutes.
Roth said that Kuwait's solution to their Bidoon problem is not what the UN had in mind.
"The duty to end statelessness is not a matter of just handing out random passports, but rather recognizing citizenship rights in the place where they have build their lives," he said.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) has also spoken out against the move, calling it, "a cynical ploy [by the Kuwaiti government] to relieve itself of its own obligations to the Bidoon," and, "an affront to human dignity and justice."
Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the IHRC, told VICE News that denying people their rightful citizenship, even while granting them rights to another country, can lead to the decimation of a "culture and history." He also said that the plan highlights the Kuwaiti government's lack of respect for the Bidoon.
"Many nations around the world, for whatever reason, want to deny their own people a status because they don't fit in to what they consider the norm," Shadjareh said. "States have to take responsibility for the fact that these minorities are part of their society and they have been for a very long time. They need to have that right despite the fact that they are a minority with their own particular interests and their own culture."
The IHRC has consultative status with the United Nations, and Shadiareh said they will raise the Bidoon citizenship issue with the Human Rights Commission.
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