Being 27 and not having the right to travel. Being young and ambitious and not having the possibility to finish one’s studies, find a good job or get married with whoever one wants. Having lived in a country since one’s birth and not being recognized as a full citizen with all the basic human rights it comes with.
Ahmed – his name has been changed as he wants to stay anonymous – knows this story by heart. As about 100,000 other people in UAE, and in the Gulf region, he is a “Bidoon”. Meaning literally “without” in Arabic, the “Bidoon” are a stateless minority in the Gulf countries. They lack citizenship of any country and are therefore deprived of many fundamental human rights. “When we are Bidoon, we lack two things,” explains Ahmed, “the passport and the citizenship. Without the passport, it is just impossible to travel beyond UAE’s borders. Without the citizenship, we are denied all the services and privileges Emirati usually have access to like scholarship for university, good position in the administration, free healthcare and aids for young couples and families. If the government has been doing a lot during the past few years to improve this, there are still many injustices remaining.”
According to some NGOs, there could be 100,000 stateless people in the UAE
It is quite difficult to get a right estimation of the number of Bidoon in UAE. Government claims that here are only 10,000 stateless people in the country. On the other hand, non-partisan NGOs such as Refugees International and academics estimate the number to be much high, perhaps in the region of 100,000 people.
Statelessness is a serious human rights issue and affects the ability of a person to receive essential services and to travel freely. In the UAE, stateless people face discrimination in employment and have restricted access to medical care and education. Many of them have lower living standards than Emiratis. This violate their rights as laid in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in particular part 3, clauses 6-15 which guarantee the right to social security, including education and medical care. Being stateless also affects the ability of the Bidoon to travel freely. The Bidoon in the UAE lack passports or documentation and are therefore unable to leave the country.
“I had to stop my studies because I could apply to a scholarship as a Bidoon”
Thankfully, Ahmed has a determined and positive mind. He managed to achieve some of his dreams thanks to hard work. He is now an educated person, with a good job and feels integrated within the Emirati community. But despite his contagious positive thinking, he still keeps few regrets on some opportunities he missed because of his status.
“I had to stop my studies after high school because I couldn’t apply to a scholarship as a Bidoon and my family couldn’t afford my studies in university without any governmental assistance. Thankfully, I found a job that allowed me to keep on improving my qualification while working. I studied a lot also by myself, reading books and meeting people. I’ve been working a lot and now I saved enough money to finance the studies of my little sister.”
Ahmad worked hard to compensate his handicap in comparison with Emirati citizens, but some prejudices still remains among the community.
“I’ve never been bullied by my Emirati friends for non having the citizenship, I’ve always felt deeply included in the community, proud of my country and its culture. The only time when I felt it as a problem was when I tried to get married with an Emirati girl few years ago. Actually her parents didn’t have anything against me, but they were fearing that my Bidoon status could be a problem in the future for their daughter and her children. They didn’t want her to be engaged in a family that could be discriminated, which was understandable but very frustrating for me. Marriage is really a big thing in our culture. Having such problems to get married within my community is really a problem.”
Bidoons do not have any identity papers and are not citizens of any state although many lived in the UAE all their lives
The reasons for Bidoon’s statelessness are varied but they generally fall into two main categories: some are from nomadic Arab groups who had lived in the area for centuries; others are the ancestors of people who travelled to the area – mainly from Iran or Southeast Asia – before the UAE was established as a country. Both groups were not registered as citizens when the UAE was founded in 1971 because they either lacked necessary tribal affiliation or were illiterate and did not register their presence. Therefore, the Bidoon do not have any identity papers and are not citizens of any state although many lived in the UAE all their lives.
Until recently, there existed a further complication: if a child was born to an Emirati mother and a foreign father, he was not considered as an Emirati citizen even if he was born in the country. Now, the children are able to apply to the government for citizenship; although these requests are generally accepted, those who were born from non-Emirati fathers are not guaranteed citizenship.
Among the 100,000 Bidoon registered in UAE, there are always as many different familial and personal stories and destinies. “The story of my family is a little complicated,” apologies Ahmad laughing. “My mother is Indian and my father Iraqi, but he should have got the Emirati nationality. My father was born from an Emirati mother and an Iraqi father. He was born in UAE but for certain reasons couldn’t prove it. His mother, who was originally from Iraq also, got the Emirati nationality from a previous marriage with an Emirati who died few years after their union. She got the UAE citizenship after her first husband died, so it was a little difficult to transfer it to my father who was born after that from her second marriage. By a consequence, my father lived almost all his life in UAE without anything. No passport, no citizenship. He didn’t even have the right to leave the country. This could have been a real problem. In 1998, he had to travel to India for a surgery, but he couldn’t as long as he didn’t have any passport. So after many procedures he finally got the Iraqi passport to be able at least to travel. He got the Emirati passport very recently in 2002, but still not the nationality.”
The government now helps Bidoon getting the Comorian passport in order to ease the procedure
Because his father was denied the Emirati nationality, it makes procedures for Ahmed to get the nationality even more complicated. “Till I was seventeenth I didn’t have anything at all,” he explains. “At this time, things were very badly organized and it was very complicated for Bidoon to solve their problems. But thankfully it’s getting better now, the government is doing a lot in this path. They now help Bidoon getting the Comorian passport in order to ease the procedure and provide them the freedom to travel. They helped me a lot and paid for this passport that I go recently. I hope this would help the procedure for the nationality. It is just a matter of time, I have to be patient and to trust them.”
Surprisingly, Ahmed stays very moderate in his criticisms about the government’s policies, and is even thankful to what UAE do for him.
“I don’t complain because Emiratis are like a big family here. If I don’t deny my parents’ origins – they are part of what I am and I am proud of them – I feel more Emirati. I wear the traditional dress, follow Emirati traditions, and I am very proud of being part of this big family,” he explains. “That’s why it’s difficult to complain about them. I know they do their best and my situation is far better here than in Koweit for example where Bidoon recently revolted against their living conditions and discrimination.”
Indeed, in recent years there have been several moves to resolve the Bidoon problem by adapting administrative procedures and providing financial assistance. But this policy is a double-edged sword. Human rights activists in the UAE have reported that the government of the UAE is stepping up pressure on the Bidoon to apply for Comoros Island passport under the pretence of registering their presence in the country legally, and several reported the UAE authorities arranging Comoros Islands passports directly for them. It also puts those who take the passport in a precarious position, as it means that they can be denied residency permits and deported to countries which they have no links to.
For the moment, Ahmed is still waiting for his Comorrian passport, with the hope to be one day recognized as a full Emirati. “Inch’allah”, as he says.