Kenyans in diaspora halt plans to travel home over passports hitch

Jane Njoroge has waited for nearly three years to return home from the US and meet her family in Kenya after years of not seeing them.

She did not travel last December and the previous Christmas period due to Covid-19 which saw countries restrict travellers. "After three years of not travelling, I can't wait to see them," the 38-year-old mum of two told Weekend in Business.

However, Ms Njoroge, who works as a nurse in the US, will not be able to see her family any time soon because her old generation passport will be outlawed before Christmas and the process to get a new one has been pushed to next year.

Despite applying for the new passport on time ahead of the November 30 deadline, the earliest she can get the crucial travel document is past January – the period Kenyan immigration officials have slated her for the mandatory interview.

"They have booked me for processing my application till January next year but the deadline is at end of this month, so technically, it means I cannot travel," said Ms Njoroge via telephone interview her voice shaking in frustration often over the prospect of not seeing her family.

"It means all the beautiful plans we have for holidaying in Kenya have gone up in smoke. It means I may wait another year to see my family and all the money I saved has been rendered useless."

Ms Njoroge is among millions of Kenyans facing upended holiday plans, with the new generation passport application process hitch-forcing countless travellers to cancel travel plans to Kenya.

In interviews with Weekend in Business, many Kenyans in the diaspora said while they had applied for the passports on time, getting the passports takes time.

They are pleading with the immigration department to speed up the process or get a reprieve in form of an extension.

"President William Ruto, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua and Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua all say diaspora will be facilitated and assisted," said a Kenyan in the diaspora who identified herself as Melissa.

"Scrapping the November 30th e-passport deadline will be a costless gesture but enormously positive for us who are proudly Kenyan overseas. They should reconsider," she said.

Kenyans with the old generation passports have until November 30 to acquire the new biometric digital ones, Immigration Director General Alexander Muteshi said recently.

"In line with this decision, the Directorate of Immigration Services wishes to inform the general public that Kenya is bound to migrate to the new East African Community biometric e-passport by November 30," Mr Muteshi said.

Mr Muteshi was yet to respond to our queries by the time of going to press, on the hitch and delays affecting the Kenyans in the diaspora.

Travellers who will not have changed their passports by end of November will be barred from travelling.

“Pursuant to the decision by the East Africa Community (EAC) Council of Ministers held in Arusha from November 22 to 29, 2021, the deadline for phasing out of the old generation passport for EAC Member States is November 2022,” Mr Muteshi said.

Already, some countries like Spain and others in the European Union (EU) are not accepting the old passport from Kenyan travellers, adding to the confusion that has been occasioned by several postponements.

"The reason countries are denying us Visas without e-passports is because our government keeps saying the document will be invalid. The government is creating its own negative feedback loop. Most foreign countries have no rules about e-passports even for their own citizens," said Melissa.

The government has shifted the deadline for the migration to the new travel document several times, causing confusion.

Kenya rolled out new chip-embedded passports for its citizens to tame rampant forgery and impersonation of holders. The new features are meant to make it impossible for anyone to forge or duplicate a Kenyan passport.

"Everyone wants to come home to see their family after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. People have bank, tax, business and social contracts and arrangements to settle, also after two years of Covid. There are newborns to register, driving and marriage and property licenses to deal with already backlogged and delayed by Covid," said Vimal Shah a Kenyan in the Indian diaspora.

"And all these folks will be stuck till January. Bear in mind they might be coming from countries that refuse to renew their work or re-entry permits precisely because Kenya keeps threatening to cut off the passports. So now they are stuck in limbo between two places," he added.

The new e-passports conform to international passport security standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that require them to have a tamper-proof electronic chip with a holder’s information and travel history.

Roll-out of the e-passports with a 10-year validity period marked the beginning of the end of the ‘analogue’ passports that have been in use since independence and have joined more than 60 other countries that use new passports.

The decision to migrate from the old passport to the new e-passport was first made public in April 2015 and the launch was scheduled to be in December 2016. This was pursuant to an agreement between the EAC member states through a directive of the Heads of States’ Summit.

The e-passport aimed to boost the free movement of people across the EAC region and be in line with the implementation of the Common Market Protocol which guarantees free movement between EAC member States.

Article 9 of the protocol stipulates, “A citizen of a partner State who wishes to travel to another partner State shall use a valid common standard travel document.” Further, “the Partner States which have agreed to use machine-readable and electronic national identity cards as travel documents may do so.”

The e-passports were to replace the ordinary and diplomatic passports and are embedded with tamper-proof chips which store the holder’s biodata - name, photo, fingerprints, date of issue and expiry of the passport, national identity card information as well as information on the holder’s travel itinerary.

An attempt to change the information on it will be automatically detected by the customs officers.

Retired President Uhuru Kenyatta had earlier directed that Kenyans in the diaspora will be issued the e-passport in their countries of residence.

He directed that a team be formed to move from country to country to register and issue the e-passports to Kenyans in the diaspora.

"We earn money to send home. We need to travel to export goods and services, and the Kenya economy benefits from our taxes, tourism, remittances, and investments," said Elizaphan Ochieng.

"The whole world was beaten up by Covid, and every other country is working overtime to make things easier for their diaspora to continue earning. Why can't we?" she posed.

A similar fate is expected to hit thousands of students travelling back abroad in January.

*Some names changed to protect the identity of the Kenyans in the diaspora.

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