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Diaspora expert tells problems Kenyans abroad face

By SHAMLAL PURI | Sep 15th 2013 | 4 min read


When one sees Kenyans at community events in Britain, and the eagerness with which they speak their mother tongue, it is easy to say they miss home. Anyone seeing the big turnout at these social events will also conclude there is a large population of Kenyans on the British Isles.

It was generally believed that just four years ago, Kenyans were among the largest African migrant communities in the UK, but diaspora members think their numbers have declined. Figures doing rounds in the community are more of ‘guesstimates’ than based on research, but how many Kenyans are in the UK?

It is becoming clear that nobody knows, for certain, how many Kenyans live in England, Wales and Scotland. Various official figures are bandied around. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, last year, there were 142,000 residents who said they were born in Kenya, and of these, 19,000 said they were Kenya citizens.

“This could only mean that 123,000 Kenyans had acquired British citizenship,” says London-based Jane Gitau, author of a study title Diaspora Human Capital, and a consultant for East African Economic Chambers of Commerce.

A 2010 World Bank Report says 144,089 Kenyans reside in the UK, Gitau says. “The figures appear to be very similar and just about right, but you must consider those undocumented Kenyans. These figures are only for legal residents.”

The question of undocumented Kenyans in the UK is a sore subject. The community is reluctant to discuss their status for fear of being tracked, arrested and deported. The on-going Home Office crackdown on 570,000 illegal immigrants from the developing countries and the recent mobile van Go Home or Face Arrest advertising campaign have sent many of them, including Kenyans, into hiding.

“I don’t think there are a great number of undocumented Kenyans like there were about a decade ago. Most Kenyans who would have been undocumented for whatever reason will by now have taken up citizenship, where they have been able to do so,” says Jane.

“The challenge that remains with figures is that they are not actual but estimated, because getting actual figures requires all those filling the survey to answer questions honestly, and that includes undocumented migrants.”


Supermarket worker Gabriel, a Kenyan living in London, says he strongly believes “it is unwise to look for people without visas. Economically, the British government will lose out on taxes. Many paperless Kenyans work very hard in various jobs, some doing even three to four jobs a week, all taxed.

“Secondly, who will take over those jobs? Care work, cleaning and security are among the jobs that Kenyans can do, but which the locals shun. Losing workers could result in a crisis!”

On the other hand, Gitau underscores the importance of having up-to-date figures of the diaspora community: “The figures help, for example, the Government of Kenya to know where and how many of their nationals are residing abroad.”

She says that the World Bank may be interested in those non-resident Kenyans who send money home, which would mostly be labour migrants with legal residence who may agree to provide the necessary information.

Though the settlement of Kenyans in the UK is considered by those back home as a privilege reserved only for a few, Jane says, they have their own difficulties.

“We all suffer many problems, including family disconnect, loneliness and even depression. We also face the daily challenges folks do in Kenya.”

She adds that it is vital for the Kenyan Government to engage with the diaspora. “Last year, Kenya launched the diaspora draft policy that set out strategies to involve Kenyans living abroad. They contributed to the policy while it was being made. It would now be helpful if the Government’s newly-formed Diaspora Department would actively engage with the community.” The private sector should not be left behind. The Kenya High Commission has coordinated road shows involving the private sector keen to tap into diaspora remittances and savings.

“Some financial institutions have dedicated diaspora services. This has helped in channelling remittances and savings to sustainable investment,” Jane says. Even though many Kenyans have opted for UK nationality, she is of the opinion that they will always remain Kenyan because “they are very nationalist and always have strong ties and feelings towards Kenya.”

Another upcoming trend has been the diaspora Kenyans returning home, particularly after the financial crisis in the West. But the numbers of returnees are sketchy and Jane sees the need for a pilot study on the reverse migration.

“Many Kenyans already do business with Kenya whilst living in the UK. The frequency of flights to Kenya means you can travel with ease. It’s an individual choice, but the economic climate and opportunities will determine where one chooses to live.”

Times have changed for the Kenya diaspora from the days of political activism that formed most of the diaspora in the 1990s. “Now, folks are focused on economic empowerment, students want to do well in school, graduate and get better jobs, and workers want a better life after retirement, hence my argument that private sector-led engagement with the diaspora will benefit all.” 


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