The oil-rich Gulf state of Kuwait has struggled for years with a demographic problem: More than 100,000 of its residents are legally stateless, and the country refuses to recognize them as its own, saying they entered the country illegally.
But a Kuwaiti minister has told a local paper that within a month, Kuwait’s Bidoon, as they are known, would be eligible to gain citizenship — not of Kuwait, but of the Comoros Islands, a tiny archipelago 185 miles off the Mozambique coast in the Indian Ocean.
Kuwaiti interior ministry official Major-General Mazen al-Jarrah told Al-Jarida on Saturday night that in about a month the government would start helping the Bidoon register for “economic citizenship” of Comoros. This would legalize their immigration status in Kuwait and allow them to qualify for health and education benefits.
The citizenship could also put them at risk of deportation. While stateless people are difficult for countries to get rid of — their lack of documentation actually protects them from being sent away — foreign citizens can be kicked out at a moment’s notice. Jarrah said Kuwait did not have plans to deport the Bidoon wholesale, but that those who commit certain crimes could be liable for deportation.
In return for the passports, Comoros will, according to the statement, receive direct investment from the Kuwaiti government, which promised to build schools and charities on the islands, the minister said.
Comoros has already provided passports for some stateless residents of the United Arab Emirates under a similar program, which was adopted more quietly than Kuwait’s and resulted in one prominent activist, Ahmed Abdelkhaleq, being deported from his lifelong home on his new passport.
After Jarrah’s statement was published late Saturday night, Kuwaiti Bidoons began flooding Twitter with critical comments, denouncing the government for “selling them” to a random country. Others made light of the situation, joking that Comoros looked nice and that they would be soon jetting away to the islands.
Later, New York-based Bidoon activist Mona Kareem summed up the situation: “I went to bed West Asian, & woke up east African. These are the miracles of arab regimes.”
Kareem’s allies in Kuwait, some of whom actively reject the label of “stateless” because they identify as Kuwaiti natives, were outraged by the proposal.
“We are not stateless, we are natives. The announced plan by the Kuwait government is a human trafficking crime, and it will lead to a rupture in Kuwaiti society. We will never accept this and we will fight it with every necessary measure,” said Hakeem al Fadhli, a prominent Bidoon rights leader who has been jailed multiple times because of his activism.
International rights groups have also lambasted the scheme. The Islamic Human Rights Commission called Kuwait's strategy “an affront to human dignity and justice” and “a cynical ploy to relieve itself of its own obligations to the Bidoon.”
The Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program Said Boumedouha said in a statement that it was "shocking" that Kuwait would deal with the Bidoon issue "by mass purchasing another country's 'economic citizenship.'"
Instead, he urged Kuwait to ensure the Bidoon had access to "an independent, prompt and fair process when applying for citizenship."
Still, many Bidoon see reason to accept the offer, reasoning that any citizenship — even if it’s from a country most people haven’t heard of, let alone one they can find on a map — is better than nothing, especially when it appears to come with actual benefits.
While they come from a range of economic backgrounds — some Bidoon live in poverty, while others earn advanced degrees, drive fancy cars and live in tony houses — they are routinely denied basic but crucial documentation such as a birth or marriage certificate because they are officially considered illegal residents. They must obtain special (and hard to come by) documentation to leave the country. Everything, they say, is harder when you’re a citizen of nowhere.
Mohammed al Shammeri, a 50-year old father of six who works as a researcher for a think tank, said that while he did not particularly like the idea of becoming a Comorian citizen, he would probably sign up for the scheme anyway.
“I will do it. What else am I to do?” he said. “I don’t want to fight with the government. I have a job, I have kids. My daughter has an engineering degree, and she can’t find work because she is Bidoon. I just want to do what’s best for my kids.”
More than 10 million people living without nationality worldwide, according to UNHCR, and Kuwait’s announcement came out just days after the United Nations Refugees agency announced a 10-year campaign to help end statelessness.
The Comoros-Gulf alliance presents a new model for governments trying to deal with stateless people in their countries without giving them the rights that come with full political and civic membership.
Comoros, a former French colony that gained independence in 1975, is a world away from Kuwait’s hot, arid climate. Until recently, a string of post-independence coups and secession attempts made the country notoriously unstable.
Economically, it’s as far as you can get from the Gulf monarchy: The African Development Bank estimated that in 2012, 45.6 percent of Comorians were living in poverty, with unemployment at 14.3 percent and youth unemployment at 44.5 percent. Earlier this year, civil servants went months without being paid, leading to strikes and protests.
The sale of citizenship is one of the ways that Comoros has attempted to shore up their economy. In late 2008, the legislature passed a law that allowed for its citizenship to be sold, and a few years later Comoros began supplying the United Arab Emirates with citizenships for an undetermined number of stateless people. The country received $200 million in return, according to statements made by former Comoros President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi.
Al Fadhli worries that his small but growing group of activists in Kuwait, who have taken to the streets regularly since 2011 to demand more rights, will wind up living on a tropical island they know nothing about.
“I am more than worried that the government will use this against Kuwaiti Bidoon. Kuwait has the same mentality as the UAE. The Gulf monarchies all think the same way. If we are outspoken, we are considered a threat to national security, and we will are deported,” said al Fadhli.
Citizenship has become a sensitive topic in the Gulf in recent months as several Gulf countries have used citizenship as a means of putting pressure on individuals whom they deem troublemakers. Bahrain in 2012 revoked the citizenship of 31 people, and Kuwait has followed in its footsteps, denaturalizing dozens of high-profile individuals for voicing their dissident views.
“Nationality is treated like a game in the hands of power in the Gulf,” said Bandar al-Khairan, the secretary-general of the Kuwait Democratic Forum, an opposition group. “They think it’s a gift they can give and take from people,” he said, citing the enormous subsidies and benefits that Kuwaiti citizenship comes with.
The Comoros arrangement, he said, is another sign of how transactional the business of naturalization and denationalization is becoming.
In an interview last month, the UAE activist Abdelkhaleq said he felt Comoros was doing the world’s stateless people a disservice.
“This is a country we do not belong to and do not want to belong to — we have our own identity. By taking part in this passport issue, you have all done us an injustice,” Abdelkhaleq said, addressing the Comoran government.
“We never had citizenship, but we belonged to the UAE. Now we belong to a country that is not ours in any sense of the word,” he said.