The mobilisation of Bidoon youth
Kuwait has had a stateless population since the 1950s, known as the Bidoon community. It is not, however, a homogenous group, and the divisions go along several lines. The Kuwaiti government has segregated Bidoons from the national population, by dividing the community into a hierarchy based on their relation to the state. In this hierarchy, children of Kuwaiti mothers are at the top, followed by holders of 1965 census ID cards, and at the bottom we find Bidoons with no documents at all. This discriminatory system became institutionalised when colour-coded ID cards were introduced in 2012. Prior to 1986, Bidoons had been treated similarly to Kuwaitis, whereas children born after 1986 were excluded and deprived of rights at birth. These anti-Bidoon policies have shaped the post-1986 generations’ relationship with the state, their parents and their own identity as stateless Kuwaitis.
In my Master thesis “Fighting for Citizenship in Kuwait” I studied the Bidoon rights movement. The movement emerged during the spring of 2011 and in 2013 I did a fieldwork in Kuwait where I interviewed young Bidoon activists about what had motivated them to take action. These activists expressed frustration with the government, with the national population and with their own parents. They felt the older generation had maintained their loyalty to the Emir in hopes that by waiting obediently, they would be awarded Kuwaiti nationality. Protest or critique was perceived as too risky. In contrast, these young Bidoons explicitly identified the Emir and his government as the source of their problems, and they accused their parents of “ruining their opportunities” in life. The people I interviewed said they first realised the full consequences of being stateless when they became teenagers and met closed doors everywhere; at schools, in universities, when seeking jobs and at the country´s borders. Some members of this group of disillusioned Bidoon youth have taken action to fight for citizenship in spite of their parents’ objections.
Bidoons share ethnicity, language, culture and religion with Kuwaiti nationals, and Kuwait has been their homeland for generations. My interviewees described mixed feelings of belonging to a country that rejected and harassed them once their legal status was exposed. In oil-rich Kuwait, nationality is more than a legal status; it is linked with economic privileges and a generous welfare system. Young Bidoons are growing up adjacent to an extremely rich society and this is likely to influence their expectations, but, although unemployment, poverty, and limited education prevail in the stateless community, Bidoons today have access to the online world, through their (second-hand) smartphones discarded by their super-consuming neighbour citizens. Access to technology has had a profound impact on the younger generations. It has given them access to information about human rights, as well as the ability to gather, mobilise and bring attention towards their intolerable situation. Directly inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011, young Bidoons used Twitter and Facebook to organise demonstrations and demand citizenship. When the government met the protesters with violence, they uploaded footage to YouTube.
Young Bidoon activists acknowledged that the movement has been facilitated by the support of Kuwaiti human rights organisations and activists. Following the protests in 2011 the government has started to issue birth certificates to Bidoons. Now, the topic is trending, but although the Bidoon case is on the agenda, state repression remains a threat. Kuwait has promised to solve the problems for decades without taking action. Bidoon teenagers today have more awareness about their rights than previous generations but they will need more support from the international community. The Kuwaiti government has introduced “steps” to solve the issue that can be regarded as attempts to buy time and avoid local and international criticism. These steps include offering to buy them citizenship of the Comoros Islands and to DNA test the entire population. This indicates that the government is desperate to get rid of the problem, yet it remains unwilling to grant Bidoons the right to citizenship.