Imagine that you have just given birth to a new baby in the country where you, your parents, and perhaps even your grandparents were born. But under current law, you and your baby are considered “illegal residents” of your own country, denied citizenship, and relegated to inferior status for life. In fact, your baby is not even considered worthy of a birth certificate – that is, unless you and your husband agree to be strong-armed into listing yourselves on the certificate as “non-citizens” or even into choosing an artificial nationality for the sake of your child's future. This life of non-existence and the harsh challenges it poses for almost 90,000 stateless people in Kuwait (called “bidoon” in Arabic) was the focus of our Refugees International assessment mission to that country in late April.
According to international law, every child has the right to an identity, a birth certificate and a nationality. The problem is marked in the context of statelessness, especially in a country like Kuwait where a birth certificate is an indispensable document for securing an education, health care, a passport, and access to jobs and livelihoods. At some level this problem is recognized by the country’s elite. “It’s a crime, in my opinion,” said one Kuwaiti citizen. Another emphasized, “It is silly to deny birth registration. I’m not sure why the government won’t do it.” He went on to say, “Perhaps it’s because after the liberation, there was a strong policy to get rid of the bidoon. I think the government should treat them as human beings; after all, the government brings injured Iraqis to Kuwait for expensive treatment just to put on a show for the media. So why use this inhumane treatment toward your own people?”
Several of the key players we met with shared their ideas for ensuring the recognition of children's rights in Kuwait. One noted that the Ministers of Health and of the Interior were going to support a proposal to resolve the impasse, but then the measure was sent into legislative limbo. Another said, “There is [already] a very simple remedy – just allow parents to put 'non-Kuwaiti' on the certificates.” Then he added, “But many won’t accept this because they believe they are Kuwaiti. It’s reaching the point where they will have to be content signing 'non-Kuwaiti' or else just leave it blank.” An official said, “It will be necessary to announce all the birth certificates in the newspapers, and if they [the parents] don’t come to get their certificates, it’s not my fault.”
If the Ministers fail to act soon, at least one Member of Parliament wants to introduce legislation that would assist parents who would prefer to sign a certificate as non-Kuwaiti rather than another nationality. In addition there is a separate proposal to protect the children of Kuwaiti mothers so that if the mother dies her children would still be able to access health and education.
Perhaps the wisest proposal of all came from the person who suggested, “Kuwait should change the procedure regarding birth registration. The document should not include parent nationality at all.”
In the absence of a decisive remedy, a number of mixed families or those with a bidoon father and Kuwaiti mother have sought other means to deal with the situation. One man explained, “Thousands of Kuwaiti women married to bidoon have gone to the U.S., the U.K. or Canada to give birth so that their babies can get U.S. or other citizenship.”
Families without access to travel documents have been less successful. One father of two explained, “To start with, in my case there was no marriage certificate. So I decided to file a suit against my wife to show I am married to her. Every year I re-visit the court and file a suit. But I still do not have documentation that I and my wife are married.” He continued, “When a baby is born, the parents have to put Saudi or another nationality on the birth registration. My two children don’t have birth certificates. If the parents do not sign the registration form within six years, they have to go to court to seek a DNA test that the child can then take to school.”
Another bidoon father explained, “I’ve lived in Kuwait for more than 45 years. Not one of my five children has a birth certificate.” Both men showed RI their baby’s birth declaration forms – flimsy pink carbon copies listing only the nationalities of the baby’s parents. There’s no infant name or other details. “But these are children of Kuwait. They know no other land,” remarked a concerned Kuwaiti citizen.
Lack of documentation touches the lives of stateless individuals nearly everyday -- and especially markedly at momentous occasions such as at birth, school entry, and when they want to marry-- it even impacts the occasion of death. One of the stories we heard was about the mother of the teen victim of a car accident who couldn’t obtain a death certificate to claim the body from refrigeration and bury him. One interviewee lamented, “There are kids who have come into this world and left it, without any documents at all and without any proof that they existed.”
Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives Maureen Lynch and RI Consultant Charlotte M. Ponticelli traveled to Kuwait in April to assess the situation for bidoon there.