Tear gas and rubber bullets to halt demonstrators. Dozens of people arrested, many injured, several hospitalised. Not an uncommon scene in the Middle East, but some protests have drawn less attention than others.
This February marks three years since the start of demonstrations by Kuwait’s large stateless Bidoon community, thousands of whom have taken to the streets to demand citizenship after decades living on the margins of society.
The last fortnight has seen new protests which have provoked a fresh government clampdown. The demonstration area was blocked off by the authorities, preventing access for outsiders. We’ve heard reports that 15 protesters have been detained in recent days, held on 'suspicion of participation in illegal protests and inciting riots'.
The Bidoons have repeatedly defied government attempts to stop them demonstrating, including bans on protests, curfews, and often force.
Mohammed Salem, a Bidoon activist in his 40s who was born stateless, says the protests are meant to highlight their lack of basic rights as they seek a long-term solution.
The word 'Bidoon' comes from the Arabic description of the population as 'bidoon jinsiya', or 'without nationality'. The term refers to those who missed the opportunity to register as citizens when Kuwait became a country in the 1950s and who have remained stateless, passing this plight on to their children. Today, they number approximately 100,000 people - a significant population in a country with just 1.5 million citizens.
The majority live in the slums of Taimaa, a stark contrast to the luxury on display in the capital. Despite having nowhere else to call home, they are excluded from Kuwaiti citizenship and live a precarious existence. Lacking citizenship, they cannot benefit from the generous welfare system in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries.
The Bidoon are among more than 10 million stateless people worldwide. Countries like Myanmar, Syria, Latvia, Ivory Coast and the Dominican Republic all have large stateless populations. Without any nationality, these people face all manner of problems in their daily lives, often denied basic rights to healthcare, education, jobs and housing. They also suffer severe social marginalisation and commonly experience an overwhelming sense of rejection and hopelessness.
Since nationality forms the basis for the right to political participation, stateless people are also disenfranchised and left powerless to change their situation because they can neither vote nor stand for election themselves.
This powerlessness helps explain why the Bidoon have felt forced to find other methods to assert their right to citizenship. The protests are a means of creating political space where the system does not afford them any. And indeed the demonstrations have achieved several things: a spotlight has been cast on the situation and international pressure has been mounting for the Kuwaiti government to address the issue; the authorities have been forced to express an interest in seeking solutions - although this has not yet translated into action.
REPRESSED AND DEMONISED
The Bidoon have combined protests with extensive social media campaigning, advocacy before international human rights bodies and cultural initiatives.
But many Bidoon leaders have been arrested or put under pressure to cease their activities during violent clampdowns. Some of those with jobs have had their salaries temporarily frozen. The authorities have also passed new regulations limiting the right to protest to Kuwaiti citizens.
"The authorities have recently been putting significant pressure on Bidoon activists," Salem explains. "Even when there has been no conviction by the Kuwaiti judiciary of individual cases, the government authorities take action such as putting 'security restrictions' on them and restricting the validity of their ID cards, all of which disrupts their activities and restricts their movement."
Salem says MPs make derogatory and inflammatory remarks, accusing Bidoons of working with foreign groups. "There is not one organization from inside or outside the country that we have not been accused of collaborating with!"
The media has also contributed to the defamation of the Bidoons, with sensationalist reporting of their protests.
"The language is intended to 'demonise' the Bidoon activists … one activist was described as being the 'military leader of the Taimaa Brigade'," Salem says.
The Bidoon do have some Kuwaiti sympathisers who have started lobbying on their behalf, but Salem says this tactic has sidelined the Bidoon from their own cause.
"(It has) robbed the Bidoon activists of their right to decide their own fate and be the leaders of their own mobilisation," he adds. "This representation is carried out without asking the Bidoon for their opinion or collaborating with them."
Salem says the protests and sit-ins will continue. The Bidoon are finding a way to circumvent their lack of political rights or representation and ensure that they are not just seen but also heard.
Zahra Albarazi and Laura van Waas work at the Tilburg University Statelessness Programme in the Netherlands