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Let's embrace humane immigration system

By Irungu Houghton | February 9th 2019

Kenyans living abroad are increasingly becoming nervous and I don’t blame them. Immigration politics and policies are becoming toxic, hate-based and fearful. A new wave of anti-immigration and xenophobic laws are emerging in countries they live in. On top of this, recent announcements of deadlines for e-passport acquisition, DNA collection for national identity cards and the 2019 census suggest big changes are coming that could affect their rights as Kenyan citizens. 

At least three million Kenyans or 9 per cent of all Kenyans live in diaspora communities. They are scattered in the east African neighbourhood, South Africa, USA, Australia, United Arab Emirates, across Europe and elsewhere. I sat with a few of them in Germany last week. Our conversations ranged from the politricks of our politicians, human rights, corruption and their concerns with the various identity registration drives announced recently.

Across Europe and USA, immigration and refugee issues dominate election campaigns, party coalition politics and policy debates. John Tanton and other anti-immigration advocates have long advocated for a white and Christian America.

These views have moved from the radically conservative fringe to finding support in the White House and several states. Federal and State level policies that previously protected refugees and immigrants from racial profiling, denial of essential services, arbitrary detention and deportation are now under threat. 

Even traditionally liberal countries like Denmark recently passed new and controversial laws that treat people living in so called “ghetto areas” differently. Immigrants are now required by law to place children in day care at the age of one and kindergartens cannot have more than 30 per cent of their children from immigrant backgrounds.

The laws also double sentences for crimes committed in ghetto areas and fine or imprison anyone who fails to report parents who hit their children. 

For most countries, the clear official message to immigrants and refugees is stay away. For those that resist and come, they will likely face stringent asylum restrictions and no longer be eligible for social benefits, permanent residency or citizenship.

Besides the fascination with walls to keep people out and private prisons or islands to keep people in, there are now proposals to mandatory serve pork in state institutions, fining women for wearing the burkhas or hijab and banning circumcision of boys to deliberately lock out specific religions and races.

Anti-immigrant and de-citizenship policies intentionally target the poor, vulnerable and weak. They are built on the simplistic misperception that refugees and undocumented immigrants enjoy living in the shadows to avoid paying taxes rather than the security of being recognised and securely protected by the state. More politically, as we saw in the recent United Kingdom Brexit decision, anti-immigration politicians may be out of step with their youth. In 2017, a global study found 87 per cent of young people willing to welcome refugees into their countries, communities and homes.

With close to 470,000 refugees from more than twenty countries across the world, Kenya is often recognised as a sanctuary country for refugees and immigrants. Within the last month of the DusIt D2 Hotel and Complex attack, there have been renewed calls to close Dadaab and expel our refugee population. Knee-jerk reactions to profile and target certain communities must be avoided. There is clear evidence that many of the terrorists in the recent attack were locals. Furthermore, we have the lessons from the disastrous Operation Usalama campaign in Eastleigh in 2014.

Instead, the Refugee Affairs Secretariat can re-open effective registration for undocumented refugees who are in Dadaab and elsewhere in the country. For the rest of us, we can encourage refugees to find scholarships, documentation, legal protection, work or start businesses that can also employ Kenyans. Here, like elsewhere in the world, the path away from poverty, exclusion and terror is a sensible, humane and effective immigration system and a national culture and moral imagination that upholds the rights of all. 

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity . Twitter: @irunguhoughton  

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