The Bidoon law, presented in October 2019 by the Al Ghanim and adopted by six other MPs, was meant to be discussed during Monday's committee meeting before it was presented on the floor of the parliament for a vote. Image Credit: GN Archive

Kuwait City: After only two out of five MPs showed up to the Interior and Defence committee of Kuwait's National Assembly (parliament), the Bidoon draft law was taken off the agenda. Hence, it was not forth for a vote.

Abdullah Al Kandari, one of the MPs on the Interior and Defence committee, explained in a tweet that he did not attend the committee’s meeting because he would “not accept discussing a 60-year-old file in 10 minutes without consulting the concerned authorities: judges, human rights organisations and other MPs' points of view.”

“The pressure from the Bidoons and their supporters was on the MPs, which was admitted by the Speaker of Parliament [Marzouq Al Ghanim] himself, where he said that external pressures were the main cause to not attend this meeting,” Dr Fayez Al Fayez, a Bidoon activist, told Gulf News.

The Bidoon law, presented in October 2019 by the Al Ghanim and adopted by six other MPs, was meant to be discussed during Monday's committee meeting before it was presented on the floor of the parliament for a vote.

Many have pointed out that since the MPs did not attend the session, it proved that public pressure from constituents regarding the Bidoon issue has grown and is beginning to influence how MPs vote on the matter.

“In my opinion, there is gradual change in public opinion towards the Bidoon case, where we saw many parties, former MPs including ex-Speaker of the National Assembly holding many seminars refuting the practices of the government towards the Bidoon and rejecting Al Ghanim's draft law,” Dr Fayez said.

Although the draft law was presented a year ago, it was only put on the committee's agenda recently.

“I believe the law was delayed on purpose to be used as an election card; if it was voted on, it would have been considered an achievement for the Speaker, and if it didn't pass, it would be used as the campaign card to win the elections again,” Dr Fayez said.

‘Bidoon law’

Otherwise referred to as Marzouq's law, the Bidoon law was put forth by the speaker of parliament to address the issue of the Bidoon, or stateless people.

This bill affects only those that are registered in the Central System for the Remedy of the Situation of Illegal Residents, a governmental body that was established in 2010 to deal with the Bidoon and manage their legal identity.

Article 4 of the law stipulates that in order for the Bidoon to enjoy a number of benefits and to not be charged with being in violation of the Kuwaiti residency law they must first show their non-Kuwaiti citizenship, i.e. that they hold another nationality.

“This is the major problem in the draft law, it assumes that all Bidoon have another nationality, while the government failed to prove this claim since the first investigation committee in 1986 until present,” Dr. Fayez explained.

The ten benefits include but are not limited to: access to free health care in all Ministry of health facilities, access to free education, possession of ration cards and ability to obtain a driver's licence.

Many within the Bidoon community have also rejected the draft law and described it as “discriminatory” as it “demonises a whole social group by painting them as a national security threat and by accusing them of hiding this supposed original nationalities without bearing the burden of proof,” according to a statement put out by the MENA Statelessness Network.

According to a public statement by Amnesty International, the new law, “would in effect compel the Bidoon to abandon their long-standing claim to Kuwaiti nationality in order to safeguard their socioeconomic survival in the short term.”

Dr Fayez added, “If this bill is passed, it means the deprivation of our identities, it means changing our legal status from stateless to illegal expats. It will have serious consequences on Bidoon destiny, where we will be subject to deportation or jail as the only possible options.”

Timing of the law

During a public gathering a year ago, Al Ghanim presented the bill claiming that once the bill goes into effect, “there will not be any Bidoons in Kuwait after one year.”

His announcement came a day after two Bidoon men, Bader Mirsal Al Fadhli and Zayid Al Asami, committed suicide. According to a WhatsApp correspondence between Al Asami and his son, Al Asami committed suicide due to the ongoing humiliation and deprivation he has faced.

A day after Al Ghanim’s announcement, several Bidoon activists and allies joined an anti-corruption demonstration and called on the government to provide the Bidoon people with their basic human rights like citizenship, healthcare and education.

Since the formation of the Central System for the Remedy of the Situation of Illegal Residents in 2010, many Bidoon pointed out that it has been harder to obtain or renew their security card, the main form of documentation needed by the Bidoon to work, study or get a driver's licence.

In addition, the Central System for the Remedy of the Situation of Illegal Residents was supposed to be a temporary body as it was formed with the aim of finding a solution to the issue of the Bidoon by 2015.

Early history of Bidoon

Bidoon, or bidoon jinsiya, translating into a group of people ‘without a nationality’, are an indigenous group of people that lived throughout the Arabian Peninsula, prior to the establishment of modern nation states.

In 1959, then Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah, initiated the nationality law that stated, “Kuwaitis, by origin, are those settled in Kuwait before 1920, who have maintained their regular residence in it up to the day of the issuance of this law.”

At that time, many Bidoon lived as per traditional migratory patterns and did not apply for citizenship for several reasons: 1) they were unable to prove their continuous residence in one place, 2) they did not see the importance in doing so and 3) were unable to travel to Kuwait City to register.

In addition, those looking to apply for Kuwaiti citizenship had a five-year window, which ended in 1965.

Those who did receive citizenship before 1965, an estimated 34,000 people, were considered to be eligible for naturalisation as they were in possession of a reference card.

In 2002, a law was passed in parliament which stated that those that have proof of documentation prior to 1965 are permitted to be naturaliSed. The law deemed that 2,000 Bidoon, out of the 34,000 that were eligible, would be naturalised every year, although that quota was never met.

Change in policy

Between 1965 and 1985, the Bidoon had similar rights to their Kuwaiti counterparts as they had access to employment, education and healthcare. While they enjoyed very few disadvantages, they were unable to vote, as the 1959 Nationality law required that naturalised citizens can only vote once they have held Kuwaiti citizenship for 30 years.

Then in 1985-86, the government shifted its policy and began to revoke the Bidoon’s rights as many were laid off from their jobs and lost access to education, healthcare and housing. Many deemed that change in policy was the start of their condition worsening.

The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had an immense effect on the Bidoon community. Prior to the invasion, there were around 220,000 Bidoon in Kuwait, once the invasion ended there were 100,000 left as many fled Kuwait during that time while many were killed or taken hostage by the Iraqi forces.

According to Minority Rights, there are currently around 100,000 people that are registered by the Kuwaiti government as Bidoon, who are unable to receive benefits that their Kuwaiti counterparts get. Although some Bidoon have access to private health care and an education at a private university, it is not a norm as many Bidoon live in poverty.

While some Bidoon work in governmental agencies, others do not have the right to a birth certificate.

“We have always been loyal and proved our belonging to Kuwait generation after generation, we are eager to end our suffering as soon as possible. However, the solution must be fair and grant human rights, especially citizenship,” Dr Fayez said.