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Along a quiet city street in Jahra, some 50 kilometers west of Kuwait City, the father of a young and growing family glanced quickly over his shoulder to see whether anyone is observing our conversation. “I’m afraid,” he told me. Mohammed and his wife are bidun, stateless people.
The origin of Mohammed’s predicament dates back to the establishment of Kuwait’s 1959 nationality law, which defined nationals as persons who settled in the country before 1920 and maintained normal residence there until enactment of the law. At that time, about one third of the population was recognized as founding families, another third was naturalized, and the remainder was classified as bidun jinsiya (without nationality), now estimated to number about 80,000-140,000. Today, the ongoing lack of legal status impacts all areas of life for bidun: individual identity, mental health, family life, housing, health, employment, and political voice. And most, if not all, administrative processes require a security review for bidun.
In one way, Mohammed might be considered lucky. He has steady work right now, even if he is severely under employed. But he hasn’t always had a job and easily recalls the time when he provided for his family by selling fruit and vegetables on the street illegally. One time he was caught and detained for several days until he was able to pay his way out with KD 50 ($186). As the cost of release rises with each subsequent arrest, Mohammed is grateful to be gainfully employed.
Nonetheless, lack of access to formal sector employment also puts bidun at a disadvantage in the housing market. Mohammed said he pays about KD 70 ($ 261) per month for their small apartment where several child-size mattresses fill the small space between the living room chairs, leaving little walkway to the furniture. Nevertheless the family is happy to have their tiny home for otherwise they would still be sharing the residence of Mohammed’s parents, where the family of 27 adults and children, now 22 in number, live together under one roof.
Due to express need, the Kuwaiti Red Crescent provides food assistance on a bi-monthly basis to a limited number of bidun families and also distributes clothes at Ramadan. Mohammed’s wife Rania showed me the family ration card and reported, “We can usually pick up new provisions about once every three months, but the goods only last for about a month.” With three active youngsters playing on the floor as we talk and a new little one obviously on the way, Rania was anxious about the deficit.
I asked Rania about her access to prenatal care. She explained that like any expectant mother in the country, she has had a sonogram. But she also identified important differences between the service she received and the typical process for a pregnant Kuwaiti citizen. First, the location of service was different and second, Rania had to pay for what should be routine screening, whereas it is part of the national health care services provided for Kuwaiti citizens. Mohammed was also concerned about his family and said he wants his children to be happy. Then pointing toward his chest he said it hurts that he can’t give them things other children have -- like a bicycle or games.
Despite the everyday challenges that weigh heavily on them, there is little Mohammed or Rania can do to change their situation. Until the government of Kuwait issues a decision to honor the nationality rights of the bidun, this family and many others are stuck. Mohammed admitted that several years ago he did succumb to trying to find another way out by buying a counterfeit passport. The document has now expired, so he’s back to his stateless status.
Later, as he walked me out the front door and to the apartment gate, Mohammed monitored the presence of people and cars on the street. “It’s a political crime to talk about issues of national security,” he explained.
--Maureen LynchJanuary 13, 2009 | Tagged as: Kuwait, Statelessness