By PAUL WAFULA
Twitter handle @paulwaf
Illegal immigrants are paying up to Sh100,000 to buy National Identification cards through an underground web of corruption that is shaping up to be Kenya’s biggest immigration scandal.
A three-month investigation by The Standard on Saturday has unearthed shocking details of how aliens and asylum seekers are transforming themselves overnight into Kenya citizens and easily outwitting a watertight registration system mounted by the country, through corruption.
Our investigation has indisputable evidence how the scam works and the exposure of security threats to the country that could potentially sell citizenships to potential terrorists. Illegal immigrants with ID cards can then open bank accounts, M-Pesa accounts, apply for local jobs or even join the police or the military.
Transparency International recently ranked Kenya the fourth most corrupt country in the world.
Our reporting journey tracked down a number of immigrants from the point they entered the country to finally acquiring the prized and valid identification documents. We also interviewed a host of others who are at various stages of getting Kenya’s ID card through the back door.
Some are buying the ID cards straight at border towns through collusion with chiefs and village elders, while the daring ones sneak out of refugee camps into Nairobi, mainly by road, from where they meet brokers who facilitate the deal.
After they secure the ID, they have a blank cheque to resettle themselves anywhere in the country, buy property and do business like ordinary Kenyans. They can even apply for a passport and fly to other destinations of their choice posing as Kenyan citizens.
What’s worse, stringent measures put in place to make it harder for refugees to buy ID’s, which include having a centralised database of fingerprints and photos to pick out refugees have failed to seal all the loopholes.
The laws of Kenya define an alien as any person who is not a citizen of Kenya. On average, about 3,000 illegal immigrants are arrested every year in the country. The number has been rising sharply in the last five years. For instance, last year, the numbers rose 21 per cent to 4,303 from 3,557 arrested in the previous year. But there are thousands who are never arrested due to corruption. Some of the aliens who want to settle in Kenya are now avoiding registering as refugees under the United Nations (UN) ran refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
This is to avoid the otherwise torturous route, but surmountable, of having to get their fingerprints deleted from the UNHCR database to erase their refugee status, before applying for the national ID card.
The racket is deep, stretching from the points of entry, to highly connected brokers with access to Block B of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) building, where it is understood the printing of the IDs happens.
The scale of the scam is described by insiders, registration officials, police and a senior Provincial Administration officer as happening ‘day and night.’ Though the practice is spread across several border towns and their environs including Malaba, Busia, Namanga near Tanzania, Isebania, insiders say it is most rampant at the porous Kenya Somalia border.
This is because unlike other borders, it is much more difficult to differentiate Kenyan Somali and Somalia Somalis. The thin line is even much more blurred since some of the people living on both sides of the border are related.
It is not just limited to Somalis, but other nationalities including Ugandans, Ethiopians, and Congolese have also attempted to buy the document. Our investigation covered Garissa town, parts of Fafi constituency, Ijara, Masalani, Bura, Hola, Mwingi, Madogo and Dadaab.
We also visited the Ifo 1, 2 and 3 refugee camps, about half an hour from Dadaab, where it all begins.
In December last year, the Government directed all urban refugees to move to Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps.
It also ordered a halt to the registration of refugees in the cities, a move that caused uproar among human right groups, which moved to court temporarily blocking the government’s plans.
The directive is behind a fresh jump in demand for the identification documents among the illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.
This has widened the window for bus touts, drivers, traffic police officers, registration and immigration officials through the food chain to the head office in Nairobi to mint millions along the way.
But it is Kenya’s recent announcement that it is at an advanced stage to start a voluntary repatriation programme that has caused panic in the camps, a scenario that has more than doubled the price for ‘facilitation fees’ by brokers’ for ID’s. Brokers were charging Sh40,000 or less but investigations have revealed that they are now taking in a tidy Sh100,000 to sell to an immigrant Kenyan citizenship.
It is understood that the price is more if you are over 20 years old and even much higher if your fingerprints have already been captured by the UNHCR as a person of concern to the government of Kenya, falling under the government of Kenya’s protection mandate, or as a refugee. But some asylum seekers are tired of waiting on the long queues for resettlement elsewhere in the world, opting to get Kenyan citizenship at a price. Those who want to travel outside the country also use sports federations to avoid tight immigration restrictions, by registering as officials or players. They leave the country pretending to be going to represent the country but once they land in their destination country, they disappear. Illegal immigrants, some who already have secured the national ID cards and more than a dozen others who are at various stages of getting it see the highly sought after document, as a ‘licence to freedom’. One such glaring case is that of Ms Mohammed (not her real name to protect her identity). We tracked her down to a rented single roomed house, less than 10 minutes from Garissa police station and just five minutes from the town’s central business district.
She crossed the Kenyan border as an illegal immigrant through the Somalia border late last year. But unlike most of her colleagues, she did not check into any of the UNHCR run refugee camps to seek asylum.
Going to the refugee camp would have opened up a fresh stack of restrictions where she would be required to get travel passes to move around the country.
Ms Mohammed is yet to learn Kiswahili or English more than seven months after she took delivery of her Kenyan National ID card. She proudly shows us the original copy. She speaks only Somali.
Listening to her keenly, my translator, a local journalist, can easily pick her Somali out as a foreigner. Ms Mohammed’s dialect is different, speaks fluently without a Kiswahili word, and has vocabulary not used in North Eastern Province. My translator is forced to ask the same question sometimes more than twice to fully comprehend her response. But eventually, Mohammed tells us first-hand how a local she hired guided her road trip and helped her evade police road blocks and make her way safely into Garissa town from across the Somalia border for a fee.
“Once I arrived in Garissa, my brief was to wait for the next registration exercise to be announced. I presented myself when it came, a few weeks later. I got the ID,” she says. Details on her ID indicate she was born in Garissa, and the ID was issued at Sankuri on November 19, last year.
Though she was 21 at the time she applied for her ID, she indicated that she was 19, to avoid unnecessary questions from registration officers on why she had delayed to make her application. She paid the friend a small fee, which she won’t disclose on grounds that it would reveal her identity and probably jeopardise the safety of the local who was ‘extremely kind
The friend had posed as her mother. She calls the token ‘insignificant’ compared to what she gained in return. She is already married and has a family. The ‘fake’ mother accompanied her, presenting her original ID card as proof of being Kenyan. She then told the registration officials, the Ms Mohammed was her second lastborn.
“I was lucky because I had never given out my finger prints as a refugee,” says Ms Mohammed, who spent almost nothing on the exercise apart from what she paid a friend to pose as her mother. She can neither read nor write. And this is more pronounced by the way her signature on the ID looks.
Ms Mohammed received the latest version of ID cards that looks like a Smartcard, which printed just like the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) cards. Her ID looks as if it was just issued recently.
Though she admits that it was wrong to acquire Kenyan citizenship through the backdoor, she says the alternative was to face a difficult and unpredictable future as an alien in Kenya, where she would face possible arrest, prosecution, a jail term and the nightmare of repatriation.
Ms Mohammed had never known a country without war or famine. That is the chapter in her 21 years she was running away from.
At her humble house in Garissa, she is hosting a friend, another refugee. On the floor is a new mattress, next to her bed. There is also a new carpet and an old TV set in the corner. The friend, who she prefers to call ‘my sister’, even when she knows nothing about her, has not been lucky. The friend, who we agree to call Ms Ali to protect her, is a refugee from the Dadaab camp. Though her travel documents indicate that she is headed to Nairobi with her kids for medical check-up, she tells us her main reason for coming to Nairobi is to seek a Kenyan national ID card.
Brokers at camp
Given that she is already in the UNHCR database as a refugee, we think this will be impossible. But she says she knows too many people who have bought the document to quit trying. She has tried applying twice and failed. She has also purchased ID documents in the past ones by some of these brokers at the camp only to discover it was fake. This is why she wants to come to Nairobi to cut off the brokers and probably meet the genuine ones.
“I have changed my name twice. Now what I am left with is just getting someone in Nairobi to delete my name from the refugee database. After this is done, I will re-apply for the national ID and I am likely to get it,” Ms Ali, who speaks a little Swahili learnt at Dadaab, tells us. She does not stay in the camp anymore, but housed by a ‘relative’ outside the camp at Dadaab, from where she moved to Garissa. This is illegal.
She also has an Alien card, an identification card that confirms she is a refugee. Aliens’ cards are refugee certificates issued by the commissioner for refugees. She has already lost Sh15,000 to a broker who recently asked for money to help her process the ID at a registration centre.
“These brokers always show up during the registration exercises. Just come at the centre during the next exercise and I will point you to one. Some are genuine but a majority are just after the money and they disappear,” she says.
Throughout our 45 minutes’ interview, she prefers to nod or shake her head in response to our questions as she helps us piece together the process she will need to follow before she gets the ID.
“I know more than 20 people who were refugees and now have legitimate ID cards. I want to be like them,” she says. For now, she tells us she cannot use the road because she does not have the money to pay conductors and traffic police officers along the way.