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The controversial plan to give Kuwait’s stateless people citizenship of a tiny, poor African island

A protester sits on the ground during a 2012 demonstration by stateless Arabs, known as Biduns, to demand citizenship in Jahra, Kuwait. (Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)

Comoros, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Excluding the contested island of Mayotte, the Comoros archipelago covers about 640 square miles, roughly half the size of Rhode Island. Fewer than a million people live on the islands, made up of a variety of ethnicities that reflect the nation's location at a historical crossroads.

But if a new plan gets the go-ahead, Comoros may gain significantly more citizens — by offering thousands, if not many more, of stateless people from Kuwait "economic citizenship."

And many experts are not so sure this is a good thing.

These stateless people are mostly from Kuwait's Bidun population, which numbers about 100,000. Almost by definition — their name comes from the Arabic phrase "bidun jinsiya" or "without nationality" — they do not have citizenship and are considered illegal immigrants. Some are the descendants of nomadic tribes who never asked for citizenship when Kuwait became independent in 1961. Others are Arabs who joined the Kuwaiti army in the 1970s and '80s but never gained citizenship. Others have been refused citizenship for political reasons.

The Bidun form a sizable minority in Kuwait, where the total citizenship is about 1.5 million. They are often disenfranchised, having long been refused the generous state benefits that Kuwait awards to its citizens. Kuwait, perhaps fearful of what an angry Bidun minority may do, offered some limited reforms in 2011: allowing Biduns to claim health care and education, for example, and register their births, marriages and deaths. But Human Rights Watch noted at the time, many Biduns complained that bureaucratic processes meant it was difficult to get these benefits. And there remained no path to citizenship.

The government announced this would change in 2014 — but there was a catch. The citizenship on offer wasn't going to be Kuwaiti. Instead, Sheikh Mazen Al-Jarah Al-Sabah, assistant undersecretary for citizenship and passports affairs in Kuwait’s Interior Ministry, revealed in an interview that the government was negotiating with a foreign country that would be willing to offer the Biduns citizenship in exchange for economic benefits. Later that year, the government confirmed Comoros was the country in question, although no officials from Comoros commented.

It was only this week that Comoros finally ended speculation and confirmed that it was willing to accept a deal. “Yes, it is something we are ready to do if officially requested by the Kuwaiti government,” Comorian External Affairs Minister Abdul Karim Mohammad, on a visit to Kuwait, told a Kuwaiti newspaper. Although the details have not been announced, it looks as if the plan is gathering steam.

Why would someone living in Kuwait want citizenship of a small island off the coast of Mozambique? There are some cultural links here — Comoros is largely Sunni Muslim, and it is a member of the Arab League — but the deal largely comes down to economic factors. Kuwait, bolstered by its oil industry, has a gross domestic product per capita of $43,500. Despite its idyllic natural beauty, Comoros' GDP per capita is just more than $810; about 18 percent of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day. The country's small economy has been strongly hindered by political instability. Since gaining independence from France in 1975, there have been more than 20 coups and secession attempts for which it gained an unfortunate nickname the "coup-coup islands."

Comoros is not the first country to consider selling citizenship for much-needed money, although it's generally aimed at the super-rich. What may be unique about this case is how Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which also has a Bidun minority population, aggressively courted the Comoros.

Last year, the Guardian reported that these attempts had gone back as far as 2008 and that it initially appeared they would be rebuffed. But after an elaborate series of negotiations, Comoros appeared to relent, changing its laws to allow citizenships to be bought. The promise was that Gulf States would help Comoros become the new Dubai, although some Comorian politicians had humbler hopes and simply wanted to stave off a looming economic disaster.

Exactly how much money the Kuwait-Comoros deal would be worth is unclear. A far smaller scale deal between the UAE and Comoros was reported to be worth about $200 million for just a few thousand citizens — at that point, about 40 percent of Comoros' GDP. A deal with Kuwait would probably be even more lucrative.

But exactly what the deal would mean for the Biduns also is unclear, and human rights groups have expressed serious concerns. One case in the UAE presents a worrying precedent: In 2012, the Emirati government detained Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, a Bidun advocate, after he became a Comoros citizen. According to Human Rights Watch, Khaleq was offered a choice — move to Comoros or face indefinite detention in Kuwait. Eventually, authorities relented, and Khaleq was sent to Thailand, later settling in Canada.

Biduns may well face a similar choice in the future: Move to a desperately poor country far, far away from their home or accept even fewer rights than they had before in their home because of their new citizenship. That's because U.N. conventions bar the deportation of stateless citizens, but not those from other countries. Many Biduns may still accept the deal, either seeing it as a route to eventual Kuwaiti citizenship or the more immediate concern of state benefits. But Kuwait has clearly used citizenship as a political tool before, stripping dissidents of citizenship.

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