By Ahmed Hagagy
KUWAIT – Frontline worker Ahmad al-Enezi, a member of Kuwait’s stateless community, has spent the last 14 months lost in a bureaucratic maze after his bank account was suspended, freezing access to his salary and savings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enezi’s predicament has its origins in a push by the Gulf country to determine the status of its stateless residents, in the latest chapter of what its critics see as an enduring human rights abuse.
Enezi and his family are among tens of thousands of Arabs known as bedoun — from the Arabic “bedoun jinsiyya” meaning “without nationality”-- who have been fighting for decades to gain Kuwaiti citizenship.
Similar communities exist in some other Gulf states, which, like Kuwait, offer a generous cradle-to-grave welfare system to citizens but not to people deemed stateless.
Kuwait says most of its stateless people are migrants from other countries who hid their nationalities and classifies them as illegal residents.
Authorities have intensified pressure on the community over the last two years to “reveal their country of origin” or accept an “assigned citizenship” based on investigations by Kuwaiti state security services.
The campaign coincides with growing strains on state finances following a period of low oil prices and an economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enizi’s bank is demanding valid identification and Kuwaiti authorities are refusing to renew his residency card unless Enezi, 26, accepts to be identified as an Iraqi citizen.
“I wish I was Iraqi … At least expatriates’ lives in Kuwait are better than ours,” Enezi, a civil servant at Sulaibiya hospital, told Reuters, referring to the lesser rights of stateless people in Kuwait.
“Nobody can live 14 months without their salary,” he said, speaking in his parent’s home with a metal sheet roof in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the wealthy oil producer.
“They will not renew my card because they say I am an Iraqi national,” Enezi said.
His father Kamel told Reuters that he himself was born in Kuwait and that Enezi’s paternal grandfather was present in 1934 before Kuwait formally gained independence from Britain in 1961.
The Bedoun are descendants of nomadic Bedouin tribes which for centuries roamed freely with their herds across the region and fell through the cracks when modern Gulf states were formed.
Official government data says that at least 85,000 bedoun people live in Kuwait but activists say the number could be as high as 200,000. Many did not apply for citizenship in the 1960s because they were illiterate or could not produce documents, or did not know how important citizenship would become.
International rights group say their status presents obstacles to obtaining civil documentation and social services and impairs rights to health, marriage, education and work.
No official data is publicly available on the exact number of bedoun whose bank accounts have been frozen over identification issues, but local media have said they include government employees, military staff and private sector workers.
“The numbers of those who have lodged complaints are in the hundreds only,” said Tarik Albaijan, an official in Kuwait’s Central Agency For Remedying Illegal Residents’ Status, which handles bedoun affairs.
“We are coordinating with the banks and others including the private sector on this,” he told Reuters, adding the government was handling this on a case-by-case basis.
Several Kuwaiti newspapers earlier this year said the defence minister instructed that bedoun soldiers receive their salaries “for humanitarian considerations”.
Ebtihal al-Khateeb, an academic in Kuwait University, said many bedoun had refused to accept new identification documents with nationalities assigned to them by government authorities.
“The government wants to change the bedoun issue to an illegal residents problem … And the result is this kind of blackmail which leads to a complete suspension of their lives,” Khateeb said.
Asked how nationalities were being assigned to bedoun who insist they are Kuwaitis, Albaijan said that it was based on investigations by authorities, including intelligence services.
He says those findings are entered into the government system and establish a basis for dealing with individual cases.
In the poor al-Sulaibiya neighbourhood where Enezi lives, Kuwaiti flags fluttered above small houses where hundreds of bedoun families have lived over the last decades. Dozens of American SUVs were parked in the potholed streets.
Another bedoun in the area who would only be identified as Abu Jaber said he also lost access to his bank account.
“I was shocked when it (the bank) asked me to provide something that is impossible (valid ID),” he said. “We have been experiencing a social, psychological and financial setback since.”