The number of suicide attempts in Kuwait among the stateless Bidoon community have been far higher than reported, with those that do end up in state media creating public outcry. In the latest news, a 20-year-old man killed himself after being turned down for a job, after failing to produce a state-issued security card. Abandoned, sans papier, and lacking in the provision of basic amenities, the Bidoon make up around 100,000 “illegal residents” in Kuwait, with estimates of 500,000 across the Gulf. The UAE devised a solution to obscure the route of naturalisation by spending millions on passports purchased through the Union of Comoros’ Economic Citizenship Program, then coercing or deceiving the stateless into taking them, before sending them away.
With the ongoing migrant exodus from the Gulf, as a result of the pandemic outbreak, the Bidoon population may be the answer to filling jobs that nationals are reluctant to take on. The Bidoon residents, who live in the peripheral, outlying areas of the city, were former tribespeople who later became stuck in limbo when citizenship laws were promulgated. Despite having both linguistic and cultural affinities with the national populations, the Bidoon are often regarded with suspicion, as “money-grabbers” or worse. Yet, as local sources confirm, many continue working in a variety of professions, accepting meagre wages despite the respectable nature of their jobs, many as doctors or teachers, due to their lack of documents. The issue then, should the Gulf countries tap into their “illegal” human capital, is not one of citizenship, but one that provides them with basic services. Failing to do so would risk agitation among the stateless, who are no newcomers to public protests – in Kuwait last August many went on a hunger strike.
Redressing the issue of the Bidoon is at the top of Kuwait’s parliamentary agenda, with the Speaker of the National Assembly declaring, last November, that a new law would allow the stateless to declare their original nationalities. He added that those who step forward would be granted permanent residency, with free healthcare and education, in a bid to resolve the stateless issue in one year. The fact remains that Kuwait’s Central System has accumulated “about 5 million documents issues since the 1960s that allow it to trace the original nationality of about 87,000 people”. As things stand, the issue remains far from resolved.
Rethinking urban planning, in particular housing, would provide both a “soft” form of concession without ruffling political feathers, and also a genuine provision of basic services to the Bidoon. In the Gulf cities where residential zoning segregates quarters reserved for nationals from those for foreigners, both the stateless and low-skilled migrant workers are housed far from the city’s core districts – invisible and inaccessible. While non-national housing continues to be provided through the unregulated private marketing, in Kuwait for instance, there has been an oversupply of commercial properties with up to 30 per cent of all properties unoccupied. These vacant residential units, situated closer to the central areas, could be allocated to “eligible” Bidoons filling in jobs for the state. This move would provide a huge step up from their current accommodation: shanty or ‘ashish’ in colloquial terms, describing temporary structures from wooden packing cases, old sheets and corrugated metal. These informal housing for the stateless are located in fringe areas with few elements of self-support (shops, schools, mosques etc.).
As the current pandemic situation forces a readjustment of the demographics of the Gulf, there is a simultaneous call for the nationalisation of the workforce. Yet, many forget that there is an inherent mismatch in skillset for certain jobs, or a reluctance by Gulf nationals to fill low-skilled jobs that they consider socially demeaning. While the stateless community could plug the occupational gaps, a degree of integration remains crucial. Without inclusion in the current global climate of racial equality movements, the Bidoon could be another ticking time bomb in the Gulf.
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