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Stateless in their own country

August 13, 2022
topics: Political violence
by: Frank Odenthal
located in: Kuwait, United Kingdom, Iraq
tags: Bedoon, Bidoon, indigenous people, Kuwait, stateless

The Bedoon are native to Kuwait, but the Kuwaiti government has denied them citizenship for decades.

Fighting for your rights in Kuwait is dangerous. Yet the Bedoon continue to demand justice despite the state’s repression

The Beedon are an ethnic minority native to the region who regularly crossed borders between neighbouring countries, but were never granted citizenship following their permanent settlement in Kuwait. As stateless persons, the Bedoon face multiple restrictions on basic rights, including the right to registration upon birth, the right to marry and start a family and the right to travel

The group’s most prominent human rights defender, Mohamed Al-Enezi, now lives in exile in London. He shared his story with FairPlanet.

FairPlanet: Who are the Bedoon?

Mohamed Al-Enezi: The Bedoon are citizens of Kuwait. They are not stateless as the world knows stateless people; they are citizens. There were plans by the government and various business people in Kuwait to exclude the Bedoon from citizenship because of their ethnicity as people from the northern tribes of the country. 

They tried to exclude them - first secretly, when the prime minister held a secret meeting on 29 December, 1986 with the investors’ council to withdraw all rights from the Kuwaiti Bedoons and make them stateless. And they kept it secret until the Iraqi invasion.

How did you come to know of the plan when it was secret?

The documents of this “Secret Plan“ were found by journalists in the chaos following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. After the invasion they openly tried to exclude the Bedoon according to this plan. They did it in three stages. At the first stage, a committee was set up in 1993 to determine the number of Bedoons that are still in the country. Many Bedoons left Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion, but the government would not let them back into the country. I guess more that 100,000 people couldn‘t come back to Kuwait. So the committee counted the Kuwaiti Bedoon and came up with the number of 106,000. That committee stayed for three years until 1996. 

Then there was another committee called the “executive committee.” It was in charge for fourteen years. It was a very harsh committee. They were given Green Cards [formally known as security cards], but not like the Green Card in the US which gives people permittion to stay; the Green Card in Kuwait [exacerbated the discrimination of] the Bedoon, because it wasn‘t the same card of identification the other Kuwaiti citizens get. 

After that committee, in 2010, came the third committee, which was called the “Central Apparatus,” and it‘s the worst of all those committees [...] They know about the initiative of the United Nations to end statelessness by 2024, and therefore don‘t even want to label the Bedoon stateless, because they expect some sort of international legislation that forces governments to end statelessness. So [...] they are trying to change their status into “illegal” instead of “stateless.” They also regularly come up with false accusations, for example that we hide passports from other countries. But these are lies. 

"There were plans by the government and various business people in Kuwait to exclude the Bedoon from citizenship."

Stateless citizens

How many Bedoon are in Kuwait today? And how many of them are labelled “illegal”?

The present emir of Kuwait, Nawaf Al-Ahmad, in 1988 said that the number of the Kuwaiti Bedoons is 222,000. That was before the Iraqi invasion. Human Rights Watch wrote in a report from 1995 that the number of the Kuwaiti Bedoons is nearly 300,000 people. Now, after the Iraqi invasion, when half or third of the people have left the country, they couldn‘t come back. 

I was in contact with the Kuwaiti government in 2006 and 2007, and they told me that they know the number of Bedoons is more than 150,000, because some Bedoons are not registered. So, for sure the number of Bedoons inside Kuwait today is more than 250,000. And outside of Kuwait there are also more than 150,000. So, in total, we are speaking of about nearly half a million Bedoon. 

The government stopped nationalising Bedoons around the year 2003. [As I recall], 576 Bedoons were given citizenship in 2003, but that was it. In the parliament assembly in 2000 they made a law to give nationality to about 36,000 Bedoons that were accounted for in the 1965 census. But that never happened; the former emir Sabah Al-Ahmad just stopped all that.

Implementing such basic laws, like the right to nationality and citizenship, doesn‘t seem to be guaranteed in Kuwait.

The implementation of laws in Kuwait depends on the mood [of the authorities]. The Central Apparatus was not made to solve the problem based on criteria like documents that prove that you deserve nationality and to have your rights protected. Especially, they make legal conditions for any reason to deprive people of their rights. But we don‘t need to be legal citizens by an agreement with the government, because we are already legal residents by the law. 

But they changed the articles of the nationality laws many times. In fact, we were included from the beginning of the establishment of the country in 1961. But year after year, they kept making up new laws. They changed the nationality laws fourteen times to make the Bedoons lose their rights.

Kuwait is a constitutional emirate where the monarchy controls the majority of state institutions and parliament, which often challenges the government. How does the political system in today‘s Kuwait operate from your perspective?

There is no democracy. Sabah Al-Ahmad [former emir of Kuwait] had taken the country to its worst, and one of the main players are business people - they are the most influential and are the main reason behind the Bedoon issue. 

You know, I moved as an activist to get in touch with the emir in 2006 via Sheikha Awrad, and he wanted to do something, but then there was a group of 26 very powerful businessmen who went to him and gave him a letter with signatures from 3,000 business people asking him to solve the problem of the Bedoon issue, otherwise they would oppose him with their power. 

Those who are in parliament also use the Bedoon issue for their own benefit. When elections are due, some of them come up and tell us they would help us, but when it comes to lawmaking they turn away from us. 

For example in 2009, we tried to push the parliament for a legislation to return all the human rights, civil rights, like passports, documents, birth certificates, work permits for the Bedoon. But many members of parliament just didn‘t show up in parliament that day, or they hid in the toilet [to avoid voting in favour of] the Bedoon. 

Also, in 2012, the parliamentary opposition group, which should be with us, [...] published a list of 28 priorities to be discussed in the parliament, but it turned out that the Bedoon issue was not included. That was a shock for me as an activist. 

Speaking out in the face of danger

Is there any opposition in favour of the Bedoon inside Kuwait at all?

When I started talking as an activist on TV about the Bedoon issue, that was in 1995, and I did it from London. It was the first time someone spoke about [Bedoons] publicly. That‘s when some news media people started to pick up that issue. And then all of a sudden some MPs in the human rights committee in parliament provided some reports about what‘s happening to the Bedoon. 

When I started as an activist, I had some dialogue with the government. I put some pressure on them from outside, so they made an agreement with me here in London in 2007 that I stop my activity and in return they would leave the activists inside Kuwait who began to speak out publicly and not touch them. And we agreed on that, so I stopped speaking out for two years, from 2007 until 2009. But in 2009, after the activists surrounded the parliament in Kuwait, they started putting them under pressure again and even took them to the state security detention centres and arrested them. That‘s when I saw the agreement between me and the government was finished. 

So I started my activities again. I went to Geneva and spoke about the Bedoon issue. And in 2011, during the Arab spring demonstrations, the Bedoon were very active and made huge demonstrations of up to 13,000 people in Kuwait, which put pressure on the government and made them speak about the issue openly.

There even was a lawsuit against you in absentia, for which you got a life sentence. What was behind that trial?

For all the activists inside Kuwait - the government made life very hard. It was only me from outside who spoke out, and I was speaking about two issues: The first was that we, the Bedoon, need to represent ourselves, and in order to represent ourselves we need to have an election that includes people who speak in our name. And the second was that in old documents issued back in the time of British occupation, our tribes and our lands were recognised as part of Kuwait. 

So I came forward and told the government to give us back that land so that we can establish our own independent state next to Kuwait. That was covered by international law - it‘s called the right to self-determination. It says that if you have more than 100,000 people in the country that vote for independence, they have the right to do so. And I spoke about it openly, and they took it as a state security crime. That‘s why they made a case against me and included all of the activists who are supporting me on this issue. 

I got a sentence of 25 years. The other charges were dropped, because those were activists from inside Kuwait, except for two who got 10 and 7 years, respectively. But they appealed and they are now also free from their charges.

Inconsistent international support

What about the international community? Is there any support for the Bedoon?

There are some organisations that are really supportive, and there are others that are corrupt. UNHCR is really problematic in terms of corruption, from top to bottom. Even their building in Kuwait is called the Sabah Al-Ahmad House, so they are useless. I‘ve been fighting against them in conferences and meetings around the world. 

But there are other organisations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and even some permanent committees of the United Nations and members of the European Parliament that gave us all of the recommendations we asked for. 

What we actually need to do is to put those recommendations [into practice]. Like [granting citizenship] to all of the Bedoon, not arresting activists, allowing Bedoons outside the country to come back into Kuwait; all those recommendations have been given by UN bodies. But they need to be applied on the ground. The Kuwaiti government doesn‘t do any of that. 

More than that, there is this very important [1990 Resolution] 677, an international law. During the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait gave the United Nations the data of the people inside Kuwait to protect them from being charged by the Iraqi regime. So the United Nations knows everyone who was in Kuwait until the invasion on 1 August, 1990, and that included the Bedoon as citizens, not just as residents. 

Another important thing is that Kuwait included the Bedoon as citizens at the OPEC. So when they claimed their shares of oil revenues, they increased their share by using the Bedoon. They used them to get more money, but they refused to give them their rights. Even worse, I remember from the days of the Iraqi invasion that the Kuwaiti government urged the international community to use international law to [deploy] armed forces to free Kuwait. But the French president at that time, Francois Mitterrand, said that if there are too many citizens outside Kuwait, [they] will not act. So the government again used the Bedoon as citizens only to achieve its goals - in that case to be liberated by international forces from the Iraqi invasion.

"Recommendations have been given by UN bodies. But they need to be applied on the ground."

Is there any significant support from Kuwait’s Arab neighbours?

No, and they are using the Bedoon issue for their benefit. For example, the United Arab Emirates offered the Bedoon nationality to fight in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is supporting business people in Kuwait, who are opposing us so hard. The Iraqis are busy with their problems. At least they refused to agree to a deal proposed to them by the Kuwaiti Central Apparatus to sell the Bedoons to the Iraqis. They offered them money to take the Bedoon. They tried to sell the Bedoons to many countries, like Sudan and Egypt, but they didn‘t succeed.

You founded the Kuwaiti Bedoon Movement. Can you tell us about it?

In the beginning I just wanted to explain the issue, because I thought the struggle of the Bedoon is not very well known, even for the government. But they made up red lines for me that I should not cross. Like I should not speak about the emir, I should not internationalise the issue. 

But after that I discovered that it‘s a really serious issue. That‘s why I registered the Kuwaiti Bedoon Movement in 2005 as an organisation in the UK. I then represented the Bedoon in many of the United Nations committees’ reviews of the file of Kuwait since 2010. And now I‘m working with international organisations and met more than 37 European Parliament members. I did succeed in putting pressure on the government, that‘s why they are now trying to solve the issue with me. 

Just two days ago, they wanted to speak to me about an offer, but I replied that it‘s useless and far from what I was demanding. I‘m requesting three things: First, to nationalise and to give citizenship to all those who are registered in the civilian department at the 1986 census, and also those who are registered under [resolution] 766. Second, to pay compensation to the Bedoon because of all the suffering. And third, to take all of those who attempted to harm or who broke the human rights laws against the Bedoon into court and to try them in Kuwait or internationally. 

When did you leave Kuwait, and under what circumstances?

My family went to visit my brother, who was a prisoner of war in Iraq during the invasion. I went there in December 1990, and I visited him. It was in Mosul, in the North of Iraq. When we came back, we planned for many other members of my family to go there and visit my brother. And when they all went there, the war began in January. So they couldn‘t get back into Kuwait, they had to stay outside the border. I stayed in Iraq then for five years. Then I left Iraq for Jordan and stayed seven months there, and from Jordan I went to Holland, and I stayed nearly three years in Holland. I came to the UK in 2000, which is now 22 years ago. I [became] a British citizen in 2005. 

And what do you do now?

Many things. I'm a doctor in anaesthesia, but I‘m not working in my field. I‘m also a school teacher. And I am dealing with the Bedoon issue, not only in the media and in politics, but also established a system to provide ID cards to the Bedoon so that they are from Kuwait. 

As of today, I issued 810 ID cards to many people from all around the world, even from Europe, Australia and Canada. The governments and immigration departments accept these ID cards. They also accept my reports as an expert. I registered in the UK as an expert on the Bedoon issue. So when I recommend someone as being a Bedoon and being stateless, they accept my recommendation and give them residency and accept their status.

Does the government in Kuwait cause your family any trouble because of your activities? Is there a threat to your family members?

Yes, sure. They took my brother many times, because my brother and his family are still there. One day they took him blindfolded and tied his arms behind his back, and he had to stay on the chair for two days. They only gave him the chance to talk to my other brother here in the UK to make him tell me that I should not go to Geneva to talk in front of the United Nations or else. 

But I said to my brother that if I agree to do this, they will use it over and over again. So [...] I went to Geneva. And they tried to kill me here in the UK also. They came to my office when I was preparing to go to a conference in Holland, that was in 2019. They broke the door, but I‘d just left my office half an hour [before].

Is there still hope left for you to return to Kuwait one day?

I will come back! Write it in my name! There is not the shadow of a doubt in my mind that I will come back. One day you will see me there. I have no doubt about that because I am absolutely sure that I‘m doing the right thing. 

Mohamed Al-Enezi currently lives in London.

Image by Brett Jordan

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Author
Kuwait United Kingdom Iraq
Kuwaiti riot police disperse a protest of bedoons during demanding citizenship and other basic rights in Jahra, on 13 January, 2012.
© YASSER AL-ZAYYAT
Bidoon men protest outside Kuwait's parliament demanding a formation of a committee for bidoon affairs in Kuwait City on 28 October, 2008.
© YASSER AL-ZAYYAT
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