What to do with the Bidun, the one hundred thousand plus people that the Kuwait government claims are "illegal residents" and considers stateless? Now, it seems, Kuwait's rulers have come up with a solution to the "problem" of the Bidun, whose lack of citizenship rights despite historic ties to the country has frequently led to international criticism. Put simply, the idea seems to be to pay other countries to accord them rights that Kuwait itself will not.
The first public mention of this new tack came last May, when an Interior Ministry official announced in a TV interview that Kuwait was negotiating with other countries to naturalize Kuwait's stateless people in exchange for economic benefits. In November, media coverage suggested that the government aimed to strike a deal with the Comoros, an island republic in the Indian Ocean. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) had struck a similar deal with the Comoros years earlier.
Everyone has the right to a nationality under international law, which lets countries decide who may be entitled to citizenship but with qualifications, particularly when an individual would otherwise be stateless. The former UN special rapporteur on the rights of non-citizens, David Weissbrodt, said in 2008, "At the very least, a person should be eligible for the citizenship of the country with which she or he has the closest link or connection." International law binding on Kuwait also requires countries to grant citizenship rights to children born there if they would otherwise be left stateless.
Kuwait has not met these obligations for its Bidun – who currently number at least 105,702 – apparently because citizenship carries a high price-tag. The state provides such hefty welfare benefits to citizens that politicians have told me that giving citizenship rights to even a small proportion of the Bidun, in a country with around 1.2 million citizens, could bankrupt the government. Politicians also express concern that allowing more Bidun to become citizens would "change the country's demographic makeup" and affect its political orientation. So negotiating a deal for "economic citizenship" rights in the Comoros would apparently be cheaper in the long run.
In March 2011, after protests and international pressure, the government granted the Bidun certain benefits and services they had struggled to get, such as free health care and education, as well as registration of births, marriages, and deaths. Some have reported that there are still administrative hurdles to getting these benefits, though.
Neither Kuwaiti politicians nor the Bidun to whom I have spoken have answers to some of the key questions this new policy raises: what does economic citizenship include? Will children of Bidun born in Kuwait receive Comorian citizenship at birth? And, most important, once this deal is done, will the Kuwaiti government be able to deport their Bidun as "illegal residents" to the Comoros or another country prepared to enter into such a deal?
On this, the UAE may offer some troubling pointers. In 2012, UAE authorities detained Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, an advocate for the rights of its stateless residents. Under pressure from the government, he had previously applied for Comoros citizenship and a few days before his arrest received notification of approval.
At first, UAE authorities told him to choose between indefinite detention in Kuwait or deportation to the Comoros, then changed their mind and told him that he could opt for deportation to one of several other countries -- Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan, or Thailand. He chose the last, although he had no connection to it, had never been there, and would not be permitted to work. The authorities then instructed his father to obtain a Thai visa for al-Khaleq and buy his plane ticket.
Al-Khaleq traveled to Thailand, and eventually settled in Canada. His parents and seven sisters all remain in the UAE, where they were born and which they have never left.
Earlier this year Kuwaiti courts convicted a Bidun activist for participating in a protest, giving him a one-year prison sentence, followed by deportation. It is unclear where they will send him.
The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides that countries should "take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action" as a result of their participation in human rights activity. International law also protects the right to family life. Deporting a person under conditions in which they would have to leave their family and go to a place where it would not be reasonable for the family to move would violate that right.
Beyond the possible violations that could ensue from this deal, there is a risk that the initiatives by Kuwait and UAE could encourage other governments to see economic citizenship as a means of bypassing their obligations toward stateless residents.
Instead, Kuwait should recognize that pawning off the Bidun population on another state will not make its obligations disappear and in fact, will increase responsibility for all of the ensuing violations.