Following decades of being dubbed illegal residents in their birthplace, Kuwait's stateless community are offered citizenship of Comoros Islands
Al-Shimmari has spent the greater part of his almost 60 years in Kuwait’s combat fatigues, but his real battle has been to get the country’s nationality.
The Gulf state, his birthplace and that of his ancestors and grandchildren, claims he is Yemeni, albeit an official document from that republic clearly stating he is not. Once stateless by Kuwait’s standards, a citizen according to his own convictions, Al-Shimmari’s legal dilemma worsened after he was allegedly pressured to pick another citizenship.
“I was told I had to buy myself a passport or lose my job,” Al-Shimmari said, asking for his real name not to be used.
He is one of at least 100,000 people who make up the country’s stateless community, locally named “Bidoon,” an Arabic word meaning “without” and is short for “without nationality.”
While they claim that Kuwait’s citizenship is a right they’re denied, the state says that over 60,000 out of an officially-registered 93,000 have torched their original papers to be naturalised and benefit from a lucrative welfare program.
Bidoons say they fell through the cracks of legislation and a constitution that marked the independence of the state in 1961, but ignored the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors. According to the state, they’re illegal residents, whose shrinking numbers, due to administrative pressures, is evidence that they belong to another country.
“Fearing from my job, I went and bought a Yemeni passport from a supermarket. They were sold over the counter everywhere. It was not official, but the government knew about it and never stopped it. It cost me $5,800 back in 2007,” he said.
Another Bidoon said that merchants promote their merchandise of forged passports via ads stuck on the walls of government institutions, including the Central Apparatus for Illegal Residents (CAIR), which was set up in 2010 to resolve the community’s problem.
Fake passports resolved
Although they're entitled to a permanent stay in Kuwait, a passport gives them the right to issue official identification records like birth and death certificates, and marriage certificates, which they cannot attain easily, as well as the freedom to travel.
Al-Shimmari said the passport he got was "a blank booklet of which the government never verified authenticity, because they didn’t care. They just wanted anything saying I’m not a Kuwaiti to stamp my residence on. Later, I became dubious and when I took it to the Yemeni embassy they said it was fake. They even gave me an official letter stating that, but it meant nothing to Kuwait. And now, I’m neither a Kuwaiti, not stateless, nor Yemeni,” said al-Shimmari, fully blaming the government he serves for his decades-long plight.
CAIR's head of public relations, Saleh al-Saeedi said the story is not true. "We resolved the issue of fake passports over a decade ago. Those who bought forfeited African passports reclaimed their initial statuses as illegal residents in Kuwait," he said, adding that Al-Shimmari's story is illogical.
"If you go to an Arab embassy with a fake copy of their passports, would they really send you away or report you to the police?" he said.
True or not, Shimmari's plight as a stateless person who sought the citizenship of an African country he has never been to, in order to "have an identity," has resurfaced, following a Kuwaiti official's statement proposing just that.
Assistant Undersecretary for Citizenship and Passports Affairs in Kuwait's Interior Ministry, Sheik Mazen Jarrah al-Sabah, was quoted on November 9 as saying that CAIR will be distributing applications for Bidoons to request passports of the Comoros Islands, an impoverished archipelago off Mozambique's coast in the Indian Ocean.
Reassuring the Bidoons that the move will guarantee them a permanent residence in Kuwait as well as access to free education and health services among other privileges, Al-Sabah said that the government will be meeting the Island's demands of building schools and housing units.
"The state will bear the costs of resolving this community's issue and close their file once and for all," he said.
With this move, Kuwait would be following the steps of the United Arab Emirates, its sister Gulf state that reportedly struck a similar deal with the Comoros, paying the poor country millions of dollars in exchange of it taking thousands of the emirates' own Bidoons.
The comments immediately stirred an uproar. Former parliamentarian and member of the Islamist opposition, Waleed al-Tabtabaei described the proposal as "inhumane" on his Twitter account, adding that the apt solution is to naturalise stateless people who are entitled, and give those who aren't the choice between permanent residence or to leave.
MP, Faisal al-Duwaisan threatened to question the prime minister if the government forges ahead with this. Dowaisan, who is a member of the legislature's human rights committee, accused the government of lying about the stateless people’s origins.
"If it's true that they belong to other countries, then this is where they should be sent, and not to the Comoros Islands," he said.
Others described the suggestion as “human trafficking.”
But according to al-Saeedi, the apparatus has not been officially informed of having to start any procedures needed to execute with al-Sabah's comments.
"So far, they're nothing but comments made by an official," al-Saeedi said, quickly adding that it is this official who handles all matters pertaining to residents and citizenship in the country.
Perhaps the reason behind the stalling is that - just like al-Sabah told local newspaper “Al-Jareeda” in November - that procedures will start once an embassy for the Comoros Islands open its doors on Kuwaiti soil.
Kuwait's methods to resolve the long-standing issue of Bidoons have triggered several waves of condemnation from international human rights groups.
Following the latest remarks, Amnesty International issued a statement in which it described the move as "a shameless betrayal of Kuwait's international human rights obligations."
“Instead of playing games with people’s lives and futures, authorities in Kuwait must find a long-term solution to this problem by ensuring all Bidoons have access to an independent, prompt and fair process when applying for citizenship,” Amnesty's Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa programme, Said Boumedouha, said.
Over the past three years, younger stateless people have staged repeated protests to demand their rights for citizenship. Most of these rallies ended violently when security forces attempted to disperse participants, many of whom face charges of jeopardising national security.
A lawmaker in April suggested that those who were found guilty of breaching public security and participating in unauthorised protests be sent to a desert camp, which he urged the government to build for this purpose.
Amid growing tensions which peaked in 2012, Refugees International, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International together took an unprecedented step of writing a letter to Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, in which they urged him to put an end to the alleged abuse of Bidoons.
"All Bidoons born in Kuwait should be recognised as citizens, and those who have resided in the country for a reasonable amount of time should be eligible to apply for citizenship and acquire citizenship," they said.
For al-Shimmari, who fought wars with the Kuwaiti army, he's never been that far from his goal. No longer a Bidoon, a status that at least gave him a permanent residence in the country with restricted freedom to leave, he now has to find a sponsor like expatriates who make up nearly two-thirds of Kuwait's population of over four million.
Asked if he'd pursue the Comoros nationality to correct his status, al-Shimmari said he had not, and had no intention of doing so.
"I've already done me and my children, and theirs, a grave [disservice]. I'm a Kuwaiti, and so are they. It's who we are, and it's our right, and we won't and can't be anything else."