We may be stateless but we are not voiceless

The stateless in Kuwait have been trapped in poor conditions for two decades. The Arab Spring has provided hope that at long last their voices might be heard.

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Following this twitter hashtag, users from different parts of the world have asked me to explain the fight of the Bidun over statelessness in Kuwait and how it feels to have been brought up in this underrepresented minority in an oil state; famously considered the most democratic when compared with its Gulf counterparts. The goal of the hashtag was to remind people of our cause and to raise awareness of our ignored struggle. Thanks to social media, thousands have become aware of our grievances and concerns.

Social media has helped those of us who are stateless bond, communicate, and better coordinate for the sake of the community. These protests first started in February and immediately came under heavy attack from the local mainstream media and some racist and misinformed citizens, in addition to facing heavy police brutality.

As if the stateless of Kuwait did not already have enough reasons to take to the streets of Taimaa and Sulaibiya this February, the interior ministry recently gave them new and compelling reasons to do so. Their cause has been growing since the 60’s with the establishment of Kuwait as a state. Their lives deteriorated significantly in 1986 when Kuwait decided to deny them the right to documents, education, health care, and employment. In the late 80’s, a stateless person did not have access to public education or to the only university in the country, as private universities did not then exist. Over the following years, the ministry decided to deny them birth, marriage, divorce, and death certificates. The stories that come out of the community leave readers and spectators amazed by the absurdity of the situation; how one can exist and not exist!

Until recently, there was little coverage of the plight of those involved in the stateless struggle in local or international media. This year though, everything turned upside down. A few thousand out of 120,000 stateless people protested earlier this year. They were beaten, arrested, and put on trial with silly charges. The November protests against the prime minister of Kuwait that pushed him to resign, however, were alos gret encouragment to the stateless of Kuwait. This time, the authorities were obliged to come up with some different answers.

The authorities drew on their old anti-stateless alliance with local newspapers to use the same misconceptions, stereotypes, and charges to win public support for repressing these protests. But within months, the whole status of the ongoing protests had changed. This was partly due to the weekly planning of the stateless campaigners. But what was even more important was the involvement of Kuwaiti citizens in supporting the protests. The newly formed leftist group “Tayar Taqadomi” was the first to speak out sharply against repressing stateless protesters, documenting violations, and attending our trials.

The Kuwait Human Rights Association kept up a stream of ‘gentle’ condemnations but it also played a crucial role in documenting violations and speaking up for the arrested stateless protesters. Activists, columnists, and sympathizers protested in front of the parliament in our support. When the stateless protesters wanted to join these protests, however, the security forces at once practiced their apartheid tactics, demanding civilian IDs and saying that only citizens were allowed to protest, especially in Erada Square!

The December protests of the stateless were at first repressed as they have always been, with the interior ministry deploying the usual lies and disinformation against the protests on the ground and through the media. Within a few days, however, the stateless were thrilled to see the authorities, for the first time, having to try to contain a situation which threatened to escalate, thanks especially to the new levels of support among well-known citizens.

Saleh Al-Fidhala, the Chairman of the Executive Committee for Addressing the Status of Illegal Residents, whom the stateless refer to as Hitler, was forced to come on national TV to talk about official plans to solve the situation. He only reminded the stateless of all the previous racist and derogatory remarks he had made on previous occasions against them. The fact that he was on state TV at all was in itself a sign that showed how intimidated the authorities were, for the first time, by the protests. That piece of theatrical showmanship was swiftly followed by a spate of statements and promises coming out of the interior ministry.

The stateless of Kuwait were once a part of the society, never needing to speak out because they never felt themselves differentiated. After 1986, a whole generation grew up suffering from an apartheid and lack of basic rights. This generation is the one that has started to form itself in 2008, protesting in small numbers, writing online, receiving threats, and getting arrested without anyone covering the stories of their detentions. This generation felt empowered, in contrast to the silence of their fathers who feared that speaking up might delay their naturalization. So this generation is revolting not only against injustice but against a set of fears well-implanted in the community.

The recent promises might be just another trick to cool off the protests, only to root out the main organizers and deal with them when things have died down. The promises might also be another attempt to deceive the international community and to keep up the whitewash of a ‘bright’ national image. Among the twelve million stateless people around the world, very few communities have been vocal in fighting for their rights, most notably the undocumented in the United States and the stateless of Kuwait. We feel that we have grabbed way more attention than anyone recently. And this matters to us, because what will make the difference is not what the authorities decide to do, but the fact that finally we are letting them know that the status quo has changed: and that we might be stateless, but we are no longer voiceless.

About the author

Mona Kareem is a poet, journalist, and blogger at monakareem.blogspot.com