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Disapora woes mirror failed policy

By Ken Opalo | August 22nd 2020

The public humiliation of Kenyan workers in Lebanon following a standoff with the embassy officials in Beirut is a source of national shame. Under the glare of the global media, the Foreign Ministry is signalling that it cares little about Kenyan lives. This is part of a sorry pattern. Across the Middle East, many Kenyans endure deplorable working conditions with little protection from our government.

This includes even in situations where the very government planned for the recruitment of workers for overseas job opportunities. Whether in India or China or Lebanon, it is painfully clear that our government will always be quick to abandon our fellow citizens when they are the most vulnerable.

The Lebanon fiasco calls for a reconsideration of how our foreign missions deal with our diaspora. Incidentally, in 2014 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published the “Kenya Diaspora Policy.” The guiding principles of the policy are primarily economic. At the time, the government’s goal was to harness the diaspora to meet the Vision 2030 development agenda – by boosting lowering the cost of remittances and attracting tourism. The government also sought to improve the collection of data about Kenyans living abroad in order to improve consular services. The 27-page document reads like a standard poorly designed policy – heavy with statements of aspirations but fairly light on specifics. It should, therefore, surprise no one that the services rendered to the diaspora have not improved since.

It is high time we changed our diaspora policy. By having a very narrow economic focus, the government effectively downgraded the humanity of Kenyans living abroad. These fellow citizens are not merely sources of remittances and foreign exchange. They are human beings with aspirations and who at times may need assistance from their embassies.

With this in mind, the cornerstone of our diaspora affairs policy should be the humane treatment of Kenyans overseas. This foundation should be built with the understanding that life away from home comes with a lot of vulnerabilities – especially in countries like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, or India, where Kenyans often experience extreme forms of racism and violence.

At the very least, our embassies should not treat Kenyans living abroad in the same manner that they get treated by some of their racist hosts. No Kenyan (or African for that matter) will be treated with dignity as long as we continue to see stories of the inhumane treatment of Kenyans, including by their own government!

Beyond guaranteeing the humane treatment of Kenyans, our policy must be multifaceted and alive to the varied lived realities of Kenyans abroad. We must develop clear and enforceable policies designed to take care of our tourists, students, migrant workers, and permanent residents.

Our embassies must be prepared to come down heavily on airlines, hotels, and other establishments that discriminate against Kenyan travellers. Our students need help acclimatizing while abroad and building a network wherever they may be. Our migrant workers, because of their vulnerable status, need protection from exploitative employers. And finally, permanent residents also need to build networks and social/economic associations.

Deliberate investments in these people-focused ways of taking care of our own will naturally generate the economic windfalls we want. Happy Kenyan tourists, students, workers, and immigrants will be great ambassadors of our government and society back home. In the same vein, strong communities of Kenyans abroad will provide platforms for investing back home. Such a development would be a big improvement from the current situation where the vast majority of Kenyans living abroad never hear from our embassies.

Whether at home or abroad, our policymaking should always have the affected people in mind. The shameful events in Beirut are a reminder that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to fall far short of this ideal.

The writer is a Professor at Georgetown University



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