Aisha Algayar, an award winning journalist, rarely had to convince her Kuwaiti editors to work on sensitive issues, such as corruption or human trafficking. But when she wanted to do an investigative report about the security restrictions imposed on the thousands of residents denied citizenship (known in Kuwait as“Bidoon”), she had crashed into one of the biggest red lines in Kuwaiti media.
I was never denied permission to work on sensitive stories. But the Bidoon issue was always a red line
This was not the first time I did a report on stateless residents, known as “Bidoon”. In 2014, I worked on a report for Al Fanar Media on “Bidoon” children who were ostracised from the official educational system. I had met a 6-year old boy who was denied entry into a school because he didn’t have identification documents or a birth certificate. I sat with his father for a lengthy interview. I couldn’t include much of its content in my report at the time, but it stuck in my memory. The father, his siblings and their children, have all been denied IDs since the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait in 1990.
It’s been more than 30 years since Kuwait began imposing security restrictions on thousands of Bidoon, as well as their children and grandchildren. But there is hardly any discourse about this issue, which is why I decided to investigate it in 2018.
In the last few years, the word Bidoon (without) has become a popular hashtag on social media platforms, with tweets about young men committing suicide and children being denied education. Occasionally, organisations such as Human Rights Watch would publish reports about them, including this 2019 report about jailed activists launching a hunger strike.
My Bidoon colleagues know that I care about their situaion, but they are still apprehensive. Sometimes, they would ask why an Egyptian journalist is so interested in their cause
I have lived and worked in Kuwait for 25 years, and I believe that freedom of the press here is relatively better than most Arab countries - with Tunis and Lebanon as exceptions. I was never denied permission to work on sensitive stories; whether on women’s rights, human trafficking or corruption. But the Bidoon issue was always a red line. The sad thing is that those who reported or edited the official storyline on the Bidoon were from the Bidoon themselves. In order to keep their jobs, they had to tow the official line that justified depriving them of Kuwaiti nationality.
The Bidoon in Kuwait come from three different backgrounds. There are the nomadic tribes that travelled across the Arabian Peninsula, but eventually settled down in Kuwait before its independence. To this day, they do not carry citizenships from any country. The second group are former nationals of other Arab countries, like Syria, Iraq and Jordan, who came to Kuwait in the 1960s and 70s to join the Kuwaiti army and police. The government preferred to register them as Bidoon to avoid exposing its military recruitment policy, which was a very sensitive at the time. The third group are children who were born to a Kuwaiti mother and a Bidoon father.
Since the Iraqi war on Kuwait in 1990, the security apparatus in Kuwait imposed new restrictions on Bidoon, and regarded them as illegal residents. In the past, they were issued official documents that classified them as “Bidoon”, thus granting them residency rights. But now, thousands of them have been denied those papers. This means they do not exist in state records and, as a result, they and their children were denied their most basic rights. Defenders of Bidoon’s rights, such as Mohammad Ala’anzi, believe that Kuwait is trying to force them to disclose other Arab citizenship - which it claims they hold - in order to eliminate their presence in the country.
My Bidoon colleagues know that I care about their situaion, but they are still apprehensive. Sometimes, they would ask why an Egyptian journalist is so interested in their cause. I would see despair in their eyes. They are Kuwaitis in everything; language, traditions, norms, the sense of belonging to a homeland, yet they do not have the minimal rights that would make them equal even with expats in the country.
Filming in their neighborhoods wasn’t only dangerous to them, but to me as well as I could have been deported
Who will publish the report?
The first problem I had when I pitched the story was that editors thought it was old. I had to explain that I wasn’t writing about the now familiar situation of the Bidoon, but about the security restrictions that were imposed on them and made their situation even more complex.
When I finally got approval from ARIJ, I had to convince people who were victims of those security restrictions to speak on camera. Filming in their neighborhoods wasn’t only dangerous to them, but to me as well as I could have been deported if I was discovered by the authorities.
I spent months communicating with tens of people, but I only managed to convince one of them who said he had nothing to lose. He then convinced another two to talk to me. I did not disclose their identities and I also hid the barcodes on their cards (issued before the restrictions were imposed) in order to protect them.
The men I interviewed asked me why I was hopeful that the report would change anything, and I told them that if we continue to talk about their case then change is inevitable. When the investigation was published on ARIJ website and The Investigative Journal, I felt there was more engagement from readers of the English version. But the most important engagement came from the Bidoon community, who shared my report widely on social media. To date, there is no official response from the government to the report, but maybe change will come one day.
*Photo: A Bidoon citizen in Jahra, Kuwait. By Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images.