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(Kuwait City) - Kuwait has not made good on its decades of promises to address citizenship claims for more than 106,000 stateless Bidun residents, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 63-page report, "Prisoners of the Past: Kuwaiti Bidun and the Burden of Statelessness," describes how in Kuwait, one of the world's richest countries, the Bidun live under the radar of normal society, vulnerable and without protection. Many live in poverty. Kuwait considers the Bidun "illegal residents." The government has denied them essential documentation, including birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as access to free government schools and legal employment opportunities.

"Like the rest of the Arab world, the Bidun have had enough and are demanding reforms the government should have made  years ago," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government responded to peaceful demonstrators with promises of reform, but it needs to go further and tackle their citizenship claims."

In February and March 2011 hundreds of Bidun gathered to protest the government's failure to act on their citizenship applications. In response, the government has promised some new benefits, including birth, marriage, and death certificates, free health care, and improved access to jobs. If implemented, these would be positive steps, Human Rights Watch said. But it would leave the root cause of their condition - their citizenship claims - unchanged.

Umm Walid, a 43-year-old Bidun widow, said that she had no paperwork establishing her relationship to her deceased husband. "[When] a Bidun dies, there is no death certificate, [so] there is no proof that I even had a husband," she said. "We don't have [an] identity." Basim A. told Human Rights Watch, "[My son] was born without a birth certificate, [and died] without a death certificate."

Statelessness has existed in Kuwait since independence in 1961. After an initial registration period ended, authorities shifted Bidun citizenship applications to a series of committees that have avoided resolving the claims while maintaining sole authority to determine Bidun access to civil documentation and social services. Kuwaiti law bans the courts from ruling on citizenship claims.

Since the mid-1980s, the government has maintained that the vast majority of Bidun are "illegal residents" who have deliberately destroyed evidence of other nationality, while denying individualized reviews of their claims. Unregistered Bidun, whose citizenship applications the authorities have either closed or refused to register, are even more vulnerable than others, with restrictions on their freedom of movement and constant fear of deportation.

International law bans the arbitrary deprivation of nationality and requires countries to consider applicants' "genuine and effective links" with a country when evaluating nationality claims, including the social, cultural, and economic ties they have established over time. The Kuwaiti government should create a timely and transparent mechanism to review Bidun citizenship claims that incorporates international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said. The process should take into account the Bidun's longstanding, historic ties to Kuwait, and should include an opportunity for judicial review.

As "illegal residents," the Bidun face obstacles to obtaining civil documentation, leaving them unable to get consistent social services or function as normal members of society. The Central System for Resolving Illegal Residents' Status, the "Bidun Committee," the latest administrative body tasked with addressing Bidun claims, must approve all official matters involving this group.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 70 people for the report, including 18 who identify themselves as stateless Bidun, as well as local human rights and civil society advocates, lawyers, and academics. Human Rights Watch also met with officials from the Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents' Affairs.

Bidun interviewed said that the committee has denied their applications for government documents, claiming to have evidence that they had other "true nationalities" - evidence that they have not been allowed to see or contest. They said the body has rejected applications for birth, marriage, and death certificates, leaving them with no way to prove legal relationships to family members.

International human rights law requires governments to provide certain civil documentation for all residents, whether legal or illegal, including a child's right to registration upon birth, and the right to marry and found a family. The Kuwaiti government should ensure the Bidun's right to civil documentation, including birth certificates, marriage registration, death certificates, and travel documents.

"Denying Bidun basic identification documents on the basis of secret evidence that they have other nationality is as arbitrary as it is unfair," Whitson said. "The Kuwaiti government's policy to make Bidun invisible doesn't make the Bidun problem go away, but it does bring suffering and exclusion to vulnerable people."

Bidun also face violations of their social and economic rights, including their rights to education, health, and work, Human Rights Watch said. The Kuwaiti government provides certain handouts, and on May 26 agreed to provide ration cards for food allowances through government-run cooperatives. But the government has not recognized enforceable legal rights and benefits for the Bidun, and continues to enforce discriminatory policies against them.

While some Bidun carry security IDs to allow them to get services available to the Bidun, unregistered Bidun do not even have these documents and fear leaving their homes because they risk arrest and deportation. The government excludes unregistered Bidun from the handouts it provides, including some of the new reforms promised this spring. Unregistered Bidun face significantly greater obstacles to accessing education, health care, and work opportunities.

Though Kuwait has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires governments to provide free universal and free primary education, most Bidun children cannot attend the free government schools for Kuwaiti children. Instead, with some tuition assistance, they go to inferior private schools that serve Bidun almost exclusively. Kuwaiti children receive free education through the university level.

Umm Abdullah, a 58-year-old Bidun woman, told Human Rights Watch that of her four grandchildren, two granddaughters did not go to school, and that while one grandson received tuition assistance, the other did not. Bidun who did go to school lamented a lack of higher educational opportunities and jobs, even if they did well in school.

"Our school was very bad," said Fatima A., a 24-year-old Bidun woman. "And [though] I received a 96 percent, afterward, I couldn't do anything."

As "illegal residents," the Bidun cannot legally hold most jobs. The government has carved out a very narrow pool of positions for which they can apply. Some Bidun said they had resorted to informal and undependable work, such as selling vegetables on the street, car repair, or tailoring. Those who have opened their own businesses have had to rely on citizen friends or relatives to register licenses and property in their names, as Bidun cannot own property or obtain business licenses.

"My father served in the Kuwaiti army 27 years," said Zahir, a 50-year-old Bidun, "[But now,] nobody in my family works."

Bidun interviewed also lacked affordable or accessible health care. As indigent patients, some could not afford medical care prescribed for them, while others lacked documentation they said hospitals and clinics required to treat them. Kuwait's government recently promised free health care to the Bidun. All Kuwaiti citizens get free health care at government clinics and hospitals.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of non-citizens has stressed that "all persons should by virtue of their essential humanity enjoy all human rights," including rights to education and health care with only "exceptional distinctions," while the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Kuwait is a party, prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin or statelessness.

"Given the vast amount of resources at its disposal, it's shameful that any child in Kuwait should go without schooling, or that families should live from hand-to-mouth," Whitson said. "By confining the Bidun to different schools, marginal or illegal jobs, and separate lives, the government is engaging in segregation, an egregious type of discrimination."

During a citizenship drive leading up to Kuwait's independence, significant numbers of people living on the outskirts of Kuwait, particularly among nomadic Bedouin tribes, failed to complete application procedures. Some were illiterate and could not produce documents proving their claims under Kuwait's nationality law, while others simply did not understand the importance that citizenship would later acquire.

In the 1960s and 70s Kuwait gave Bidun the same access to social and public services as citizens, except for voting rights. But during the political instability of the 1980s, when the country experienced a series of terrorist attacks, policy towards the Bidun dramatically shifted, and the government removed their access to government schools, free health care, and certain government jobs. Government officials began asserting that the vast majority of the Bidun were nationals of neighboring countries who had destroyed their documents in hopes of claiming the benefits of Kuwaiti citizenship, and that they were "illegal residents."

Following the 1991 Iraqi invasion and the subsequent liberation, Bidun found themselves facing increasing hardship and suspicion. No longer considered part of Kuwaiti society during a time when suspicion of Iraqi infiltrators ran high, many lost their jobs in the country's army and police forces.

In November 2010 government officials promised a new initiative to resolve the situation within five years, and following Bidun protests in February and March they made further promises to grant all registered Bidun free health care, provide children with free schooling, and to increase their employment opportunities. However, none of these promises have yet become enforceable legal rights.

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