Anti-expat sentiments blamed for restrictive policies
WASHINGTON: Populist anti-expatriate sentiments in Kuwait led the government to enact policies making healthcare and education more expensive for foreign workers than for citizens, says a report released by the US Department of State on Wednesday. “Human rights organizations reported the immediate effect of this policy was that many foreign workers and their families receiving medical treatment chose to be discharged from hospitals rather than receive treatment they could no longer afford,” the report warned.
Meanwhile, unmarried persons in Kuwait continued to face housing discrimination based solely on marital status, says the ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018.’ For example, police frequently raided apartment blocks housing bachelors, according to the report. The law prohibits single persons from obtaining accommodation in many urban residential areas. Single non-citizens faced eviction due to a decision by the municipality to enforce this prohibition and remove them from residences allocated for citizens’ families, citing the presence of single men as the reason for increased crime, a burden on services, and worsening traffic.
On violence against women, the report indicates that while government does not publish statistics on the matter, a Kuwait University study conducted in 2018 found that 53 percent of Kuwaiti women were victims of domestic violence. “Service providers that assisted women claimed that domestic violence statistics were significantly underreported,” the report reads. “Women’s rights activists have recounted numerous stories of citizen women trying to get help to leave an abusive situation, but there were no shelters specifically for victims of domestic abuse.”
According to the report, a shelter that the government opened for victims of domestic abuse remains empty according to activists familiar with the facility. “Advocates claimed that women who reach out to police rarely get help because officers were not adequately trained to deal with domestic violence cases,” the report notes. “Victims were generally sent back to their male guardians, who in some instances may also be their abusers.”
On trafficking, the report points out that the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor indicated in July that approximately 7,200 court rulings were issued against fake companies involved in visa trafficking since 2014. The total amount of fines collected from those companies exceeded 12 million dinars ($40 million), an average of 1,700 dinars (approximately $5,600) per company. In August, the Public Authority doe Manpower (PAM) reported it had won more than 500 cases against visa traffickers. “These companies were founded solely to sell visas to foreign workers; once the workers were registered to the fake companies, they become unemployed, worked as marginal workers, or were trafficked,” the report explains.
“Numerous media reports highlighted the problem of visa trading, where companies and recruitment agencies work together to sell visas to prospective workers,” the report further elaborates. “Often the jobs and companies attached to these visas do not exist, and the workers were left to be exploited and find work in the black market to earn a living and pay the cost of the residency visa. Arrests of visa traffickers and illegal labor rings occurred almost weekly. Since workers cannot freely change jobs, they were sometimes willing to leave their initial job due to low wages or unacceptable working conditions and enter into an illegal residency status with the hope of improved working conditions at another job.”
Some incidents of forced labor and conditions indicative of forced labor occurred, especially among foreign domestic and agricultural workers, the report says. Such practices were usually a result of employer abuse of the sponsorship system (kafala) for noncitizen workers. Employers frequently illegally withheld salaries from domestic workers and minimum-wage laborers.
Domestic servitude was the most common type of forced labor, principally involving foreign domestic workers employed under the sponsorship system, but reports of forced labor in the construction and sanitation sectors also existed. As of July employers filed 4,500 ‘absconding’ reports against private sector employees. Domestic workers have filed approximately 240 complaints against their employers in accordance with the domestic labor law, according to the report. Numerous domestic workers who escaped from abusive employers reported waiting several months to regain passports, which employers illegally confiscated when they began their employment. The PAM operated a shelter for abused domestic workers. As of October, according to a government source, the shelter had a capacity of 500 victims. It housed as many as 450 residents in April before the residency amnesty that removed travel bans from workers seeking to return home. According to the latest report, 145 workers were resident at the shelter.
There were numerous media reports throughout the year of sponsors abusing domestic workers or significantly injuring them when they tried to escape; some reports alleged that abuse resulted in workers’ deaths. Female domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Police and courts were reluctant to prosecute citizens for abuse in private residences but prosecuted serious cases of abuse when reported. According to a high-level government official, authorities prosecuted several cases of domestic worker abuse. In November a local woman was charged with premeditated murder and trafficking in persons for beating her domestic worker to death.
The report also highlights the case of Joanna Demafelis, a Filipina domestic worker who in February 2018 was killed and left in an apartment freezer by her Syrian and Lebanese employers. The employers of the Filipina domestic worker, who had fled the country, were arrested in February in Syria and Lebanon following an Interpol manhunt and faced extradition to Kuwait. The Criminal Court sentenced the pair in their absence to death by hanging.
Domestic workers had little recourse when employers violated their rights except to seek admittance to the domestic workers shelter where the government mediated between sponsors and workers either to assist the worker in finding an alternate sponsor or to assist in voluntary repatriation. There were no inspections of private residences, the workplace of the majority of the country’s domestic workers. Reports indicated employers forced domestic workers to work overtime without additional compensation.
Some domestic workers did not have the ability to remove themselves from an unhealthy or unsafe situation without endangering their employment. There were reports of domestic workers’ committing or attempting to commit suicide due to desperation over abuse, including sexual violence or poor working conditions. In 2016 the government implemented the domestic labor law that provides legal protections for domestic workers. The law established a formal grievance process and identified the Domestic Labor Department at the Ministry of Interior as the sole arbitration entity for domestic worker labor disputes. A worker not satisfied with the department’s arbitration decision has the right to file a legal case via the labor court. As of September the department conducted more than 2,400 inspections of domestic worker recruiting agencies, shut 15 fake agencies, and closed 30 for failing to meet the requirements of the law.
The report also touches on the topic of anti-Semitism, saying that anti-Semitic rhetoric often originated from self-proclaimed Islamists or conservative opinion writers. “These columnists often conflated Israeli government actions or views with those of Jews more broadly,” it says. “Reflecting the government’s non-recognition of Israel, there are longstanding official instructions to teachers to expunge any references to Israel or the Holocaust from English-language textbooks. The law prohibits local companies from conducting business with Israeli citizens. This included transporting Israeli citizens on the country’s national airline.”
Torture and Inhumane Treatment
The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, but there continued to be reports of torture and mistreatment by police and security forces against detained members of minority groups and noncitizens, the report says. “The government stated it investigated complaints against police officers and that disciplinary action was taken when warranted,” it states. “Disciplinary actions in the past included fines, detention, and occasionally removal from their positions or termination. The government did not make public the findings of its investigations or punishments it imposed.”
Furthermore, the report quoted the Human Rights Committee at the National Assembly, which stated that prisons lacked the minimum standards of cleanliness and sanitation, were overcrowded, and suffered from widespread corruption in management, leading to drug abuse and prisoner safety issues. Moreover, the report indicates that while the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous reports that police made arbitrary arrests of foreigners, regardless of their residency status, as part of sustained action against persons in the country illegally.
Under the law, questions of citizenship or residency status are not subject to judicial review, so noncitizens arrested for unlawful residency, or those whose lawful residency is canceled due to an arrest, have no access to the courts. The clause that allows government authorities to administratively deport a person without judicial review requires a person to be a threat to the national security or harmful to the state’s interests. The law is broadly used and subjects noncitizens charged with noncriminal offenses, including some residency and traffic violations, to administrative deportations that cannot be challenged in court; however, noncitizens charged in criminal cases face legal deportations, which can be challenged in court.
Freedom of expression
According to the report, local activists reported they were regularly contacted by state security services and Ministry of Information officials if they published opinions deemed contrary to the government view. Meanwhile, publishers reportedly received pressure throughout the year from the Ministry of Information, resulting in the publishers often restricting which books are available in the country. The Ministry of Information received approximately 3,400 books for review and banned more than 700 due to content violating religious, political, and public morality guidelines. One author appealed to lift the ban on his book; the appeal was pending at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs reviewed books of a religious nature.
On internet freedom, the report indicates that the cybercrime law criminalizes certain online activity, to include illegal access to information technology systems; unauthorized access to confidential information; blackmail; use of the internet for terrorist activity; money laundering; and utilizing the internet for human trafficking. Newspaper reports indicated that nearly 2,000 cybersecurity cases were filed under this law. The government’s E-Licensing program requires bloggers and websites that provide news in the country to register with the Ministry of Information and apply for a license or be fined. The ministry has issued approximately 500 licenses to individuals and organizations this since the implementation of the law in 2016. No fines were issued during the year. The government continued to monitor internet communications, such as blogs and discussion groups, for defamation and generalized security reasons, according to the report.
According to the latest government figures, there were approximately 88,000 Bidoon in the country, while in Human Rights Watch estimated the Bidoon population at more than 100,000 in 2018. The law does not provide noncitizens, including Bidoon, a clear or defined opportunity to gain nationality. The judicial system’s lack of authority to rule on the status of stateless persons further complicated the process for obtaining citizenship, leaving Bidoon with no access to the judiciary to present evidence and plead their case for citizenship.
The naturalization process for Bidoon is not transparent, and decisions appeared arbitrary. The Central Agency for Illegal Residents, tasked with monitoring Bidoon affairs, had more than 88,000 registered Bidoon under review. Although Bidoon are entitled to government benefits including five-year renewable residency, free healthcare and education, and ration cards, community members have alleged it was difficult for them to avail of those services due to bureaucratic red tape.
According to Bidoon advocates and government officials, many Bidoon were unable to provide documentation proving ties to the country sufficient to qualify for citizenship. The government alleged that the vast majority of Bidoon concealed their “true” nationalities and were not actually stateless. Agency officials have extended incentive benefits to Bidoon who disclose an alternate nationality, including priority employment after citizens, and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. As of March approximately 12,700 Bidoon admitted holding other nationalities.
Bidoon leaders alleged that when some members of the Bidoon community attempted to obtain government services from the central agency, officials would routinely deceive them by promising to provide the necessary paperwork if Bidoon agreed to sign a blank piece of paper. Later, Bidoon reported, the agency would write a letter on the signed paper purportedly “confessing” the Bidoon’s “true” nationality such as Saudi, Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian, or Jordanian, which rendered them ineligible for recognition or benefits as Bidoon.
According to UNHCR some Bidoon underwent DNA testing to “prove” their Kuwaiti nationality by virtue of blood relation to a Kuwaiti citizen. Bidoon are required to submit DNA samples confirming paternity to become naturalized, a practice critics said leaves them vulnerable to denial of citizenship based on DNA testing.
The government discriminated against Bidoon in some areas. Some Bidoon and international NGOs reported that the government did not uniformly grant some government services and subsidies to Bidoon, including education, employment, medical care, and the issuance of civil documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates. Since the government treats them as illegal immigrants, Bidoon do not have property rights.
Bidoon advocates reported that many Bidoon families were unable to obtain birth certificates for their children due to extensive administrative requirements, which restricted the children’s ability to obtain government-issued identification cards, access adequate medical care, attend school, and be counted in official statistics.
Many adult Bidoon lacked identification cards due to the many administrative hurdles they face, preventing them from engaging in lawful employment or obtaining travel documents. This restriction resulted in some Bidoon children not receiving an education and working as street vendors to help support their families. Many Bidoon children who attended school enrolled in substandard private institutions as citizens were given priority to attend public school.
The government amended the existing law on military service to allow the sons of soldiers who served in the military for 30 years and the sons of soldiers killed or missing in action to be eligible to join the military. According to the head of the Interior and Defense Parliamentary Committee, more than 25,000 Bidoons are awaiting enlistment.