More than 50,000 refugees were living in Kuwait in 2001, including an estimated 35,000 Palestinians, 15,000 Iraqis, and small numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, and other countries. Refugee figures can only be roughly estimated, however, because Kuwait does not recognize refugees, instead tolerating the presence of some foreigners as part of its expatriate labor force. Kuwaiti tolerance, however, generally does not extend to citizens of Iraq because of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991. About 120,000 stateless Arabs, known as Bidoon, also lived in Kuwait during the year.

Refugee Law and Procedure

Kuwait is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and has no domestic law relating to refugees or any procedure 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 that recognized UNHCR's mandate to protect refugees.

In practice, the government allows UNHCR to adjudicate refugee claims. The agency conducts refugee determination interviews and allows asylum seekers to appeal negative decisions. The Ministry of Interior signs and stamps UNHCR protection letters. In 2001, persons carrying such letters were generally able to avoid arrest, detention, and refoulement (forced return).

At year's end, 2,776 refugees were registered with UNHCR, including 1,261 Palestinians, 1,200 Iraqis, 145 Somalis, 92 Afghans, and 78 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 2001, in part because it is considerably harder for undocumented asylum seekers to cross the border and remain in Kuwait than it is to enter and remain in other countries in the region, such as Turkey, Jordan, and Syria. In fact, most refugees in Kuwait are long-term residents who 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 repatriate because Iraq regards them as traitors. At the same time, they are not welcome in Kuwait, where they are often suspected of collaboration with the Iraqi occupation during the Gulf War. Similarly, many of the remaining Palestinians in Kuwait, a substantial number originally from Gaza who carry 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 has often successfully negotiated with the Kuwaiti authorities to obtain temporary residency and working rights for Iraqi, Palestinian, and other refugees.

In some cases, however, Kuwait denies the option of temporary 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, the agency generally does not resettle Palestinians outside the region.

In 2001, UNHCR assisted 117 refugees, mostly Iraqis, in resettlement to the United States and various Western European countries.

Detention and Deportation

Under its 1996 agreement with UNHCR, Kuwait grants the agency access to persons within the UNHCR 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. No judicial review of deportation orders is permitted, and Kuwait often deports foreigners for security reasons or for expired work permits.

At the end of 2001, Kuwait held about 250 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 policy 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 return to.

During 2001, Kuwait intercepted and detained the few Iraqis who crossed the demilitarized zone dividing Iraq and Kuwait. The Kuwaiti government 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 (207 km) trench along the demilitarized zone.


Kuwait made limited progress toward solving the long-standing issue of stateless Arabs, or Bidoon, in 2001. 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, although the government agreed in 2001 to grant citizenship to children of Kuwaiti widows or divorcees previously married to Bidoon men.

Since 1991, Kuwait has reduced the number of Bidoon residents by more than half, down from a pre-war population of 250,000 to an estimated 120,000 in 2001. Kuwait 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 many had held before the war, restricted Bidoon to overcrowded slum areas, and barred Bidoon children from Kuwaiti schools.

In May 2000, Kuwait's parliament voted to ease the citizenship requirements of Bidoon registered in the 1965 population census, who numbered some 36,000. At the same time, the government announced that the remaining Bidoon would not be eligible for citizenship and were required to regularize their status with the authorities by June 27, 2000 or face prosecution and deportation.

By the end of 2001, the government reportedly had registered some 80,000 Bidoon cases. These included the 36,000 registered in the 1965 population census and an additional 8,000 registered in June 2000 who were eligible to apply for citizenship. The government considers the remaining 36,000 registered Bidoon to be illegal aliens, maintaining that many are in fact citizens of other countries and are concealing their nationality in order to obtain Kuwaiti citizenship. Persons in this group may apply for a status short of full citizenship that accords them five-year residence permits and other benefits, but must come forward and admit their "true" nationality to do so. During the year, thousands of Bidoon came forward, documenting themselves as citizens of other countries, although significant numbers reportedly purchased counterfeit documents in order to adjust their status.

Acquiring citizenship proved difficult even for many Bidoon who were eligible because they were counted in the 1965 census. Even as the Kuwaiti 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. However, even fewer – only 500 to 600 – were granted citizenship in 2001.


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