Not Quite Citizens

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The Alshamery family’s trip to the country of their birth got off to a very bad start as soon as they arrived in Kuwait airport last December.

It was the family’s first trip back to Kuwait after emigrating to Australia 10 years ago. They became involved in an argument with Kuwaiti airport staff while applying for their visas. By all accounts it escalated into an ugly scene, with airport officials allegedly stamping on the Australian passports, man-handling the two sons and trading insults with the mother, Nasrah Alshamery.

Last month, Nasrah Alshamery was sentenced to two years’ jail for insulting the Emir during the incident, charges her family denies and which her Kuwaiti lawyer is appealing. She has been in jail in Kuwait since December and is said to suffer from ill-health. Her two eldest sons, who were also arrested for assaulting airport officials, were released on bail but were not allowed to leave the country while the case remained open. The rest of the family was deported to Australia.

How does a trip back to your former country go so horribly wrong? The Alshamery family’s treatment may have something to do with their "bidoon" (stateless resident) status in Kuwait before they became Australian a few years ago.

The Arabic word "bidoon" literally translates as "without" and is short for "bidoon jinsiya" — without citizenship. Many bidoon are descendants of Bedouin tribes that roamed freely across the borders of present-day Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq. Those who failed to apply for citizenship when Kuwait became independent in 1961 or who were unable to provide adequate proof that they were settled in the country, were classified as stateless.

Estimates of Kuwait’s bidoon population range from 90,000 to 130,000, which is less than half the number who were residing in the country prior to Iraq’s invasion in 1990. Many were accused of collaborating with the Iraqi forces during the 1990 invasion and were expelled, or if abroad they were not allowed back into the country.

There are bidoon in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar also, but some human rights activists argue the Kuwaiti bidoon are the worst off. Those who remained in Kuwait were subjected to systematic discrimination: their lack of legal status makes it difficult for many to access identification papers, employment, education or public healthcare. Recently there have been some Kuwaiti parliamentary initiatives to grant civil and social rights to the bidoon, but every time the citizenship issue comes up for debate, other matters have taken attention away from the situation. Many have emigrated to other countries, in the Alshamery family’s case making their home in Winston Hills in Sydney’s north-west.

On arrival at Kuwait airport, Australians are normally given a visa, along with the surly but polite reception that is typical of immigration officials everywhere. But it is a sad, modern-day reality that immigration officers are often guilty of ethnic and economic profiling, and Kuwaiti officials are no exception. To the airport officer, there would have been a contrast between the Alshamery family’s name and appearance, and their preconception of how a Western passport-holder looks.

Based on the family’s account they were treated very poorly indeed — subjected to abuse, insults and beatings — and it’s not hard to imagine how the incident got out of hand: the tone was aggressive, emotional buttons were pushed, tempers rose, and things were said in the heat of the moment. Whether they amounted to insulting the Emir, a crime in Kuwait punishable with a jail term of up to five years, is beyond the scope of this story. The question is: Why were the Alshamerys treated so badly in the first place?

Could it be the airport officials recognised them as Kuwaiti bidoons and subjected them to discriminatory treatment that the average Australian traveller would not have received?

The story was covered by the major Australian media outlets in January when it came to light, and followed up in April after Nasrah Alshamery’s sentencing. It then disappeared from public view until the ABC ran a report on Lateline on Friday night reporting that Nasrah Alshamery was now very ill and was being denied medical assistance.

The Department of Foreign Affairs says it has ensured she has had access to legal and medical help and consular visits, but says there is a limit to what the Government can do to help Australians involved in judicial processes overseas. However, the family says they feel abandoned by the Australian Government. Considering their background as immigrants coming to this country from one where they experienced serious discrimination, this is a tragic situation. The family has contacted the Emir asking for Alshamery to be granted a pardon and for all three family members to be allowed to return home.

Nasrah Alshamery is not the only person in recent years to be arrested for insulting the Emir. In April, Kuwait police arrested Khalifa al-Khorafi, a candidate standing in the May parliamentary election and a member of one of Kuwait’s wealthiest families, for criticising the ruling family in a television interview. Around the same time another electoral candidate, Khalid Al-Tahoos, was released after being arrested for criticising the regime. In Kuwait’s otherwise relatively free and vibrant media environment, this is an exception, which has also caught journalists on occasion.

Article 54 of the Kuwait constitution states that the Emir’s person "is immune and inviolable". But the rest of the constitution would resonate with many principles promoted in Western constitutions. Article 7, for example, states that "Justice, Liberty, and Equality are the pillars of society; co-operation and mutual help are the firmest bonds between citizens."

That isn’t a comfort to the Bidoons, however, deprived as they are of the privileges of citizenship. For one accused of insulting the Emir, there is even less comfort.

Although most comments on Australian online discussion boards attached to popular news sites were sympathetic to the Alshamery family, there were some expressing a virulent racism, showing none of the support for a fellow citizen that you would expect a story like this might inspire.

On a Yahoo news site a comment from a skippy8900 read "Aussie be buggered. Did you see the photo in today’s paper. All you could see was her eye slits." Another on Livenews showed Kjic commenting: "I find it funny that they are only Australian when they need us, hope you catch up with all the relatives. I implore you don’t discourage others from going home too."

In an ABC news report in April a family friend, lawyer Mark Williams, said the youngest boys were being made fun of at school and that one was suspended for fighting because of comments made about his parents.

Nasra Alshamery is no longer stateless. She’s an Australian now — but it seems there are people in both countries who are having a hard time accepting it.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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