Bahrain is a small Muslim country located in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has only been independent of imperial governance for 42 years. It has been governed by a Sunni-led constitutional monarchy since its release from British rule and Iranian influence in 1971. Although many of the violent conflicts in the Middle East dwarf the issues in Bahrain, the country’s refugee problem has grown since 2011. Shia refugees in Bahrain today face displacement, religious segregation and suppression of free speech.

Until recently, Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived in relative peace since Bahrain’s formal independence. In comparison to many other Islamic countries in the Middle East, Bahrain experienced little violence along religious lines. Whether this was because the nation is in its infancy, or because of the absolute rule of the government, remains to be seen. However, it is clear that a stark divide between the two sects of Islam was revived in light of recent political turmoil.

The dominant sect of Shia Muslims began a series of protests in 2011 which have occurred through to the present day. Dissatisfied with their representation in the government since independence, protesters hope to galvanize political reform. The royal family’s militant suppression of free speech caused most protests to subside and created a mass of Shia refugees.

Government analysts noted the possibility that the religious divide between Sunni and Shia has been rehashed as a political tactic to suppress dissenters. Bahraini dissenters are displeased with the lack of democratic representation in the government. As local Bahraini historians and politicians suggested, pitting the two sects of Islam against each other appears to be an attempt to consolidate power within the royal family.

Civil unrest in Bahrain and the royal family’s purported desire to consolidate power within the country led to the marginalization of Shia Muslims. Below are ten facts about Shia refugees in Bahrain which indicate the disenfranchisement, poverty and exploitation they suffer:

  1. Most Bahraini refugees are Shia Muslims. Unlike most instances of political scapegoating, the situation in Bahrain is peculiar in that the Shia sect of Islam is the religious majority.
  2. The official reason for the exile of many Shia Muslims is the sect’s purported allegiance to Iran’s political agenda. However, there is no hard evidence that Bahraini Shia Muslims are advancing an Iranian political agenda. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of Bahraini exiles are noted political dissenters who are critical of Bahrain’s royal family.
  3. Shia refugees live in ghettos which are becoming increasingly common in Bahrain. The slums are often purposely masked by new infrastructure. This infrastructure is funded by donations from Arab nations seeking to quell the civil unrest boiling beneath the surface.
  4. Political dissidents in Bahrain can receive sentences of up to five years in prison, which may include torture depending on the dissident’s level of cooperation. The Security Law of Bahrain, which passed in 1975, states that any political prisoner may be imprisoned for up to three years if the ruling party deems the dissident a threat to the ultimate goals of the nation.
  5. Routine and institutionalized discrimination against Shia Muslims bars the religious group from easily obtaining the most basic human necessities, such as food, shelter and water.
  6. Since 2012, the Sunni ruling family has been tinkering with the citizen naturalization process to disrupt the demographics of Bahrain and weaken the voice of the Shia in the nation’s political institutions.
  7. The right to fair trial is regularly kept from Shia Muslims, which serves to exacerbate the injustices which cause extreme poverty in ghettos.
  8. Health care for Shia refugees is minimal, but there is an even more chronic lack of medical care for persons living with HIV/AIDS, posing a serious threat to public health.
  9. While the egregious human rights violations carried out against the Shia in Bahrain have subsided somewhat recently, the institutions which facilitated these abuses of power remain intact. Work must still be done in order to alleviate the poverty and oppression of Shia Muslims in Bahrain.
  10. Bahrain has not agreed to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This means that the treatment of refugees in Bahrain is not monitored, and information concerning refugees in Bahrain is disorganized and largely missing.

Linford Spencer

Photo: Flickr