About 52,000 refugees were living in Kuwait in 2000, including an estimated 35,000 Palestinians, 15,000 Iraqis, and 2,000 Somalis. These are rough estimates, however, because Kuwait does not recognize refugees. Rather, it tolerates the presence of some foreigners as part of its expatriate labor force. Kuwaiti tolerance, however, generally does not extend to Palestinians and Iraqis, whom Kuwaitis judge to have sided with Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.
Since 1991, Kuwait has been hostile and suspicious toward certain groups considered sympathetic to Iraq during the war – particularly Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and the remaining stateless Arabs, known as Bidoon, still in Kuwait.
Many Bidoon have lived in Kuwait their entire lives, but are not recognized as citizens. Kuwait reserves full citizenship rights for those who established residence in the country prior to 1920. Children born to Kuwaiti women are not generally accorded citizenship if their fathers are Bidoon or foreigners. Since 1991, Kuwait has reduced the number of its Bidoon residents by more than half, down from a pre-war population of 250,000 to an estimated 120,000 in 2000.
In the immediate years following the Gulf War, Kuwait also significantly reduced the number of Iraqis and other foreign nationals – Palestinians, Jordanians, Yemenis, and Sudanese – whose leaders supported Iraq during the Gulf War. In 1996, Kuwait instituted a policy of routing the residence permit renewal applications of such foreigners through the State Security Service, which often denied them. By the late 1990s, Kuwait had reduced the number of these foreign residents to about ten percent of its prewar total. Despite Kuwait’s reconciliation in 1999 with Yemen, Jordan, and Sudan – supporters of Iraq during the war – it gave no indication of greater leniency toward their nationals residing in Kuwait during 2000.
Refugee Law and Procedure
Kuwait is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, has no domestic law relating to refugees, and lacks procedures for adjudicating refugee claims. In August 1996, however, the Kuwaiti national assembly ratified an agreement the government signed with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that recognized UNHCR’s mandate to protect refugees.
In practice, the government allows UNHCR to adjudicate refugee claims. UNHCR conducts refugee determination interviews and allows asylum seekers to appeal negative decisions. The Ministry of Interior signs and stamps UNHCR protection letters. In 2000, persons carrying such letters were generally able to avoid arrest, detention, and refoulement.
At year’s end, 2,800 refugees were registered with UNHCR, including 1,260 Palestinians, 1,200 Iraqis, 145 Somalis, 90 Afghans, and 105 refugees of other nationalities. UNHCR assists refugees based on individual needs assessments and cooperates with the Kuwaiti Red Crescent and Zakat House, a humanitarian agency, which also provides assistance.
Very few refugees arrived in Kuwait during 2000, in part because it is considerably harder for undocumented asylum seekers to cross the border and remain in Kuwait than it is in other countries in the region, such as Turkey, Jordan, and Syria. In fact, most refugees in Kuwait are long-term residents, most of whom only sought UNHCR’s protection after Kuwaiti authorities refused to renew their residence permits, leaving them vulnerable to detention and deportation.
Many of the remaining Iraqis in Kuwait, for example, are habitual residents, with few, or no, ties to Iraq. Most cannot safely return to Iraq because Iraq regards them as traitors. At the same time, they are not welcome in Kuwait, which remains suspicious that they collaborated with the Iraqi occupation during the Gulf War. Similarly, many of the remaining Palestinians in Kuwait, a substantial number of whom came from Gaza with expired Egyptian travel documents, have no country of citizenship to return to and must also contend with the Kuwaiti perception that they were collaborators with Iraq.
Despite the popular animus against Iraqis and Palestinians, UNHCR primarily pursues local integration as a durable solution for these and other refugee groups. UNHCR reported that it generally has successfully negotiated with the Kuwaiti authorities to obtain temporary residency and working rights for refugees.
In some cases, however, Kuwait denies the option of local settlement, usually citing a threat to security. When a refugee is unable to secure a residence and work permit and faces other difficulties, such as detention and deportation, UNHCR seeks to resettle the individual in a third country. Although UNHCR occasionally works to reunify Palestinian refugees in Kuwait with family members in other Middle Eastern countries, it generally does not resettle Palestinians outside the region.
In 2000, UNHCR assisted 122 refugees in resettling in the United States and various Western European countries.
Detention and Deportation
Under its 1996 agreement with UNHCR, Kuwait grants the agency access to persons who fall within its mandate, including persons held in detention or deportation facilities. The government, however, reserves the authority to deport foreigners without trial, including stateless persons born in Kuwait and other habitual residents of Kuwait. There is no judicial review of deportation orders. Kuwait often deports foreigners for security reasons or for expired work permits.
At the end of 2000, Kuwait held about 100 foreigners and Bidoon in its detention facilities, some pending deportation. However, the Kuwaiti government generally does not forcibly repatriate those slated for deportation, allowing those who do not want to return to their countries of origin to remain in detention. This reportedly has led to the prolonged detention of certain foreigners, particularly Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees and Bidoon who have no country of citizenship to which they can return.
During 2000, Kuwait intercepted and detained the few Iraqis who crossed the demilitarized zone that divides Iraq and Kuwait. Kuwait considers all Iraqis crossing the border, including asylum seekers, as “infiltrators” and detains them for security reasons. The UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM) informs UNHCR of any asylum seekers crossing the demilitarized zone into Kuwait. UNHCR reported that it is able to visit such asylum seekers in detention to assess refugee claims and to exercise its protection mandate.
Kuwait maintains a 124 mile (200 km) electrified border fence and 128-mile-long trench (207 km) along the demilitarized zone.
Kuwait made little progress toward solving the long-standing issue of Bidoon in 2000.
Kuwait has deported many Bidoon, often without a hearing, most commonly for alleged collaboration with the Iraqi occupying forces during the war. Bidoon with strong ties to Kuwait who left the country have not been allowed to return, and remain stateless in Iraq and other countries. As a result of the war, Kuwait also fired Bidoon from government jobs, including the police and army, which had employed many before the war. Authorities restricted their residence to overcrowded slum areas and barred Bidoon children from Kuwaiti schools.
Although Kuwait’s Parliament voted in May 2000 to ease the citizenship requirements of those Bidoon registered in the 1965 population census, numbering some 36,000, the government announced that the remaining Bidoon would not be eligible for citizenship and had until June 27 to regularize their status with the authorities or face prosecution and deportation.
International observers surmised that the decision was intended to pressure the estimated 84,000 remaining Bidoon to come forward and admit their “true” nationality. The government maintained that most Bidoon were in fact citizens of other countries but were concealing their nationality in order to become Kuwaiti citizens.
Bidoon who approached the authorities prior to June 27, signed affidavits “admitting” a foreign nationality, and renounced claims to Kuwaiti citizenship were eligible for five-year residence permits and other benefits short of those extended to citizens. Only about 8,000 Bidoon applied for the lesser status before the deadline. During the rest of the year, there was little information on Kuwait’s treatment of the vast majority of Bidoon who remained in the country without any status.
Acquiring citizenship proved difficult even for many Bidoon who were eligible because they were counted in the 1965 census. At the same time Parliament voted to consider this group for citizenship, it also voted to limit to 2,000 the number of adult Bidoon who could naturalize annually.
Kuwait also remained unresponsive to requests for readmission and citizenship of the thousands of Bidoon it deported after the Gulf War. In October, more than 1,000 Bidoon in Iraq assembled on the border between Iraq and Kuwait to protest their deportation after the Gulf War and to demand the right to return to Kuwait. Kuwait dismissed the protest as a propaganda stunt by Iraq and responded by moving elite troops to the border to prevent the protesters from crossing into Kuwait.
In an October 10 letter to the Kuwaiti government, the U.S. Committee for Refugees expressed its concern for thoseBidoon whom Kuwait had denied citizenship and deported, reminding the government that arbitrarily depriving theBidoon of their nationality violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Similarly, the UN Human Rights Committee also highlighted the plight of the Bidoon. “In view of the fact that many of these people are born or have been living in the territory of Kuwait for decades, and some are in the service of the Government, the Committee is gravely concerned over the sweeping statement of the [Kuwaiti government] Delegation characterizing the Bidoons generally as ‘illegal residents,’” said the UN Human Rights Committee in its July 2000 review of Kuwait’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Although UNHCR does not refer Bidoon for resettlement and sees a lack of durable solutions on their behalf, the agency has assisted Bidoon in accordance with criteria set forth in the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. UNHCR provided financial assistance, legal representation, and counseling to those seeking to restore their status