About 52,000 refugees were living in Kuwait in 1998, including an estimated 35,000 Palestinians, 15,000 Iraqis, and 2,000 Somalis. These are rough estimates, however, as Kuwait does not formally 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 Kuwatis judge to have sided with Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

Since 1991, Kuwait has been hostile and suspicious toward certain groups considered sympathetic with Iraq during the war – particularly Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and the remaining 117,000 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.

By the end of 1998, Kuwait had reduced the number of foreign residents from such groups to about ten percent of its prewar total, largely through routing their residence permit renewals through the State Security Service, which often denied their applications. (Kuwait deports foreigners who are unable to renew residence and work permits. Those unable to return to their places of origin may opt to stay in Kuwait, in detention.) Residence renewal denials for Palestinians and Iraqis increased sharply after 1996, when Kuwait implemented the policy.

Refugee Law and Procedure

Kuwait is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, has no domestic law relating to refugees, and no procedure for adjudicating refugee claims. In August 1996, however, the Kuwaiti National Assembly ratified an agreement the government signed with UNHCR that recognized UNHCR's mandate to protect refugees. The agreement states that UNHCR will seek voluntary repatriation or third-country resettlement for refugees it recognizes. Because few UNHCR-recognized refugees in Kuwait – most of whom are Palestinians or Iraqis – can repatriate, resettlement is often UNHCR's only option for finding them a permanent solution.

During 1998, 51 persons from Kuwait resettled in third countries with UNHCR's assistance. Most were Iraqis resettled to Denmark and other Nordic countries.

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 1998, persons carrying such letters were generally able to avoid arrest at checkpoints, detention, and refoulement.

At year's end, 4,193 refugees were registered with UNHCR, including 2,145 Palestinians, 1,743 Iraqis, 52 Afghans, 152 Somalis, 9 Sudanese, and 92 others. UNHCR assists refugees based on individual needs assessments and works with the Kuwaiti Red Crescent and Zakat House, a humanitarian agency, which also provides assistance. UNHCR had some success with local officials in obtaining work and residence permits for certain UNHCR-recognized cases in 1998.

Detention and Deportation

Under the 1996 agreement, Kuwait grants UNHCR access to persons falling 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.

Detainees held pending deportation at the end of 1998 included stateless Bidoon, who had no country of citizenship to return to, and Iraqi "infiltrators" (many, asylum seekers) intercepted while crossing the demilitarized zone dividing Iraq and Kuwait. In addition, at least 57 long term detainees – Iraqis, Jordanians, Bidoon, and Palestinians – who were convicted between 1991 and 1995 by Kuwait's now-abolished Martial Law Court and Special State Security Court for "collaborating with Iraq" remained imprisoned at year's end.

After years of criticism from human rights groups for holding foreigners pending deportation in the unsanitary and overcrowded Talha deportation center in Farwaniyya, Kuwait closed Talha and transferred many deportees to the state security prison in Showeikh, where conditions were reportedly better. The government reportedly granted UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to detainees at Showeikh, and released several deportees "on bail" during 1998.

During the year, the Iranian press reported allegations by expelled Iranians of mistreatment prior to deportation. Allegations included prolonged detention and torture. In one case, an Iranian who had torn up his passport before boarding a plane to deport him to Iran, was detained for 13 months before being deported. An Iranian police official said that the man arrived with signs of torture on his hands and hips. USCR wrote to Kuwait's Foreign Affairs minister expressing concern that some of the deportees may have had well-founded fears of persecution upon return to Iran. USCR requested the details of their deportation and asked authorities to investigate the charges, but received no response.

Throughout 1998, Kuwait intercepted and detained Iraqis crossing the demilitarized zone dividing Iraq and Kuwait – often in search of asylum – for being "infiltrators." UNIKOM (the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission) and ICRC reportedly monitored the treatment of the so-called infiltrators. However, Kuwait denied UNHCR access to the detained Iraqis until after Kuwaiti security officers had conducted their own investigations, breaching the 1996 agreement.

In February, Kuwait completed a 200 km (124 miles) electrified border fence and 207 km (128 miles) long trench along the demilitarized zone to keep out Iraqi "infiltrators." Many observed, however, that the fence would primarily deter Iraqi refugees fleeing into Kuwait as the United States began launching air strikes against Iraq for denying UN weapons inspectors entry into cites suspected of containing weapons of mass destruction.

On February 11, USCR wrote to the Kuwaiti embassy urging the government to deactivate the electric fence and to allow Iraqis in need of protection to cross the border. USCR reminded the government that Article 33 of the UN Refugee Convention obliges all states not to forcibly return people fleeing conflict or persecution in their homelands to a place where they would be in danger. "A blanket policy of denying asylum to Iraqis, not to mention blocking potential escape routes with electric fences," said USCR, "will undoubtedly strand individuals in need of protection inside Iraq, leaving them at the mercy of a regime that time and time again has demonstrated its capacity and willingness to persecute its opponents, both real and imagined."

The government did not respond, and both the interception policy and the fence remained intact.


Kuwait made little progress toward solving the longstanding issue of the Bidoon in 1998.

Prior to the Iraqi invasion, more than 250,000 Bidoon lived in Kuwait. After Kuwait resumed control of the country, the number of Bidoon dropped; by the end of 1998, they numbered about 117,000. As a result of the war, Kuwait fired Bidoon from government jobs, including the police force and the army, which had employed many before the war. The authorities restricted their residence to overcrowded slum areas and barred Bidoon children from Kuwaiti schools.

Kuwait has deported many Bidoon, often without a hearing, most commonly for alleged collaboration with 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.

Although UNHCR does not refer Bidoon for resettlement and sees a lack of durable solutions on their behalf, the agency has tried to extend its protection mandate over them, citing the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. By year's end, 1,151 Bidoon had registered with UNHCR, which provided legal representation and counselling to those seeking to restore their legal status.

In May, the National Assembly passed a bill that resulted in the naturalization of about 732 Bidoon, many the adult-children of Kuwaiti citizens. The National Assembly did not, however, pass legislation proposed in May 1997 that would allow about 10,000 Bidoon to naturalize.


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