Plight of the Bidoon

The 14th amendment makes the US a special place. If you’re born in the US, you’re a citizen of the US – end of inquiry. The facts of your parents’ citizenship, the status of their legal (or illegal) residence, and other such minutia are irrelevant. While the US has had its share of underclasses, it has not in modern times had a stateless underclass (like Israel has with Palestinians). By operation of the 14th amendment, this generation’s undocumented immigrants engender the next generation of US citizens, solving lots of ugly problems before they form.

Many countries do not automatically confer citizenship upon the native-born. This is usually just a problem for individuals born in unusual circumstances. Rarely is it a problem for large numbers of people, simply because countries with significant immigrant populations are not generally foolish enough to create a giant mess for themselves by denying citizenship to the native-born.

There are several noteworthy cases however. The Dominican Republic has a sizable ethnically-Haitian population, including hundreds of thousands of individuals who were born in and lived all their lives in DR, but who are not recognized as citizens by either country. Japan has a small Korean population left over from colonial times, upon whom Japan refuses to confer citizenship. Israel, spectacularly, has some 2 million Arabs in the West Bank who, since 1967, have been living subject to Israeli authority without being afforded a scintilla of political representation in Israel’s government, much less citizenship.

And then there are Kuwait’s Bidoon. Also called “Stateless Arabs,” they are descendents of Arabs from other countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq), who have been living in Kuwait since its 1961 founding – without being allowed to acquire citizenship. They have no legal right to reside in any country in the world, including Kuwait. Among Kuwait’s 4 million residents, they number about 100,000.

Kuwait has long been a majority-immigrant nation, with ethnic Kuwaitis comprising only one-third the resident population since as far back as 1975. And Kuwait’s economy has thrived for decades, relying on its enormous number of foreign workers, who hail primarily from Asia. After falling off for a few years, the foreign-born population has recently recovered, adding an additional one million in the past 10 years.

And Kuwaitis are not okay with it. Perhaps the most liberal and democratic state in the Middle East, Kuwait’s government has long had an uneasy relationship with the hordes of migrant workers that the ever-booming Kuwaiti economy requires. While it has recently weighed a few ill-conceived measures to remove a large number of its foreign workers, it has not gone through with any of them, because every enlightened Kuwaiti recognizes their utter dependence on foreign labor to maintain their extraordinarily high living standards. But one unfortunate side-effect of such anti-foreign sentiments is the ongoing mistreatment of the Bidoon.

Bidoon are Kuwaitis in all but name. But they arent merely denied political rights – they are denied access to the most basic public services, including health and education. Bidoon cant even get a drivers license. Kuwait’s latest move has been to secure Comoros citizenship for the Bidoon. While Kuwait is among the richest countries in the world (per capita GDP is 50% greater than the US), Comoros is among the world’s poorest (per capita GDP is 10% less than that of Haiti). Obviously no Bidoon will be eager to find a new home in Comoros. Rather, as citizens of Comoros, the Bidoon’s status will be normalized: as foreign nationals, they will have access to many basic Kuwaiti government services.

Clearly, this will be a major improvement for the lot of the Bidoon. As Comoros nationals within Kuwait, they effectively graduate from statelessness to disenfranchisement. However in the long run, justice demands that Kuwait recognize both the civil and political rights of its native-born Bidoon, who have lived and worked in Kuwait for all of their lives, descended from people who, likewise, for more than half a century, could call no other place their home. The Bidoon deserve nothing less than full Kuwaiti citizenship – to not merely live and work in peace, and be accorded basic human rights, but to participate as equals in their own governance as well.


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