The World

Kuwait’s Novel Solution for Undocumented Residents: Buy Them Citizenship in Some Other Country

Comoros: nice beaches, cheap passports.

Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Later this week, President Obama will announce an executive action meant to provide legal protections for up to 5 million undocumented migrants now living in the United States. Of course, the United States isn’t the only country with a large population of undocumented immigrants. Kuwait also announced a major new initiative this week, one that deals with the problem very differently.

More than 100,000 people in Kuwait belong to a group known as the “Bidun.” The Bidun are mainly descended from nomadic Bedouin tribes who, for various reasons, failed to complete the application procedures for citizenship after Kuwait became an independent nation in 1961. Today, they are formally stateless.

Though many have lived in the country their entire lives, they are considered illegal migrants by the Kuwaiti government and have been repeatedly rebuffed in their subsequent requests for citizenship. As noncitizens, they are barred from holding most jobs in Kuwait and are denied access to health care and education, as well as many legal protections.

This month, however, the Kuwaiti interior ministry announced that the Bidun would soon be eligible for citizenship … but not in Kuwait. Rather, the government plans to bulk purchase “economic citizenship” for the Bidun from the East African island nation of Comoros, hundreds of miles away. Comoros, a member of the Arab League, has already provided passports to some stateless residents of the United Arab Emirates under a similar scheme. Before the program gets up and running, Comoros has to establish an embassy in Kuwait.

The Bidun wouldn’t actually live on the tiny islands, which have a population of just 800,000. Comoros is one of a growing number of countries that sell citizenship to foreigners in legally precarious situations, though this would be on an unprecedented scale. Kuwait argues that Comoran citizenship would formalize the status of the Bidun, allowing them access to jobs and social services.

This is probably legal under international law, but, as Al Jazeera reports, human rights groups are not impressed. The scheme stops short of the full Kuwaiti citizenship that the Bidun have been demanding and, they argue, would effectively formalize their status as second-class citizens.

In reality, citizenship could indeed make the Bidun less secure. Countries are prohibited by U.N. convention from expelling stateless people, of whom there are an estimated 10 million around the world. But the treaty doesn’t cover citizens of other countries.

Legal niceties inside, the Bidun aren’t thrilled with the notion that their country is trying to make them citizens of someplace else. As one Bidun activist put it on Twitter, “I went to bed West Asian, & woke up east african. These are the miracles of arab regimes.”