Coronavirus: Kenya’s Diaspora Policy Under Spotlight

When the coronavirus erupted in China, the immediate concern globally was that it didn’t have to leave its epicenter in Wuhan. Four months later, there were more than 1.5 million infections and more than 95,000 deaths globally, signaling how transboundary and contagious the virus had become.

In Kenya, the coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about its diaspora policy. On April 9, video footages emerged on social media of people who said they had been forcibly evicted from their homes in China. They claimed they were Kenyans sleeping on pavements and that the Kenyan Embassy had neglected them.

Officials at the Kenyan Foreign Ministry (KFM) rejected the claims. Ababu Namwamba, the Cabinet Administrative Secretary Foreign Affairs said diaspora protection is central to the Foreign Ministry. “The best interest of every Kenyan in any corner of the world is our core concern,” he said.

Stringent measures

Soon after the coronavirus outbreak was contained in China, with fewer infections and deaths, Beijing imposed tougher background checks. They included mass testing of residents, as well as leasing only to those whose immigration status was legal. Landlords therefore resorted to ejecting those they couldn’t host, causing complaints of discrimination.

On Friday, April 10, the Foreign Ministry admitted that it was aware of the new conditions. They also said that they had written to China, seeking explanation on any mistreatment of Kenyans. “The Ministry has received an assurance from the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi. They said that their Government takes the issue seriously and that the local authorities in Guangzhou have been tasked to take immediate action to safeguard the rights of the Africans concerned.”

But that has not stopped critics from questioning Kenya’s stance in helping her diaspora population. When the virus first erupted and trapped Kenyans in China, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said there was no immediate need to evacuate them.

In fact, officials said that it was easier to have them there, where the health systems are better, than to bring them home and struggle to manage the numbers. For Kenyans living in Wuhan, the government said it would send them a stipend of about $150 each instead of evacuating them.

Global spread of the virus

 The virus has now spread beyond China, with the US leading in the number of infections and deaths. Overall, there are an estimated three million Kenyans living abroad. This is according to the Kenya Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Diaspora Portal, an online registration center that helps the government to monitor the number of its citizens abroad.

However, that figure could be less than the actual number since the government only counts those who register. This group routinely sends home millions of dollars in remittances. In 2019, the government announced that it received $2.56 billion (Sh256 billion), nearly ten per cent of the national fiscal budget.

This kind of remittances informed Kenya’s Diaspora Policy in June 2014.

Then Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ms Amina Mohamed said the policy was formed “in recognition of the urgent need to mainstream the Kenyan Diaspora into our national development process in line with the aspirations and goals of Kenya’s Vision 2030.

Before then, there had been no policy and the government often acted based on goodwill, sometimes requesting foreign countries to help. Ms Mohamed admitted at the launch of the policy that “Kenyans abroad failing to register with the Kenya diplomatic missions have hampered their protection. This further constraints effective delivery of consular services.”

Laxity in evacuating Kenyans

 Several crises later the Kenyan government has often been reluctant to evacuate during crises. To be fair, some of the crisis happened before the policy was implemented.

  1. In the 2013 South Sudanese war, Kenyans stuck in South Sudan were evacuated, but only after public pressure, and only those in the capital Juba.
  1. During the Yemeni war, Kenya evacuated its nationals, but it came after a request from China to also have its nationals airlifted to Nairobi.
  1. When the Ebola crisis hit West Africa, only public pressure stopped the national carrier from flying. The government did not evacuate.

Legally speaking, all Kenyans have a right to return to the country. Government officials in Nairobi also said that those returning from Wuhan or wherever the coronavirus is would be quarantined for 14 days. This was later changed when flights from those countries were suspended. Later, all international flights were suspended.

Rights of Kenyans in diaspora

Jill Cottrell, a Kenyan scholar on constitutional law argued that Kenyans may only enjoy specified rights like voting and joining political parties, the right to obtain access to publicly held information and have IDs or passport.

They are also free to enter and remain in Kenya (except in times like this) and not be deported, and be protected. The last bit may imply the government’s responsibility to protect all Kenyans wherever they are. Cottrell said “the details of the Constitution have to be filled in by law…”

Dr Shem Ochuodho, the Global Chairperson of the Kenya Diaspora Alliance, a lobby that presents views of diaspora associations, said there have been incidences where the government ‘forgot’ about Kenyans abroad.

“Apart from their immense contribution to Kenya’s economy, the skills, talent, intellectual capital and global business networks of Kenyans abroad, particularly dual citizens bring is immeasurable,” he said recently.

He also added that members of parliament should seize the opportunity and make these ‘Forgotten Kenyans’ to start feeling a sense of belonging., referring to situations where some Kenyans have been denied public appointments for holding foreign passports.

Nominated MP Godfrey Osotsi admitted that there are gaps to be filled so those in diaspora could be treated like other Kenyans.

“The contributions by the Kenyan Diaspora to the country’s development goes much beyond personal remittances,” he argued in a notice to a motion he planned to file in parliament, following confusion on whether to employ a dual citizen as Kenya’s ambassador to South Korea .

Kenyan government realized that it has to review and formulates a comprehensive policy and structure to harness the diaspora resources for national development. That policy may include evacuation procedures. But the motion wasn’t tabled by the time the National Assembly went into recess.

Where to seek information about Kenya diaspora rights/obligations

What journalists should do:

  1. Contact diaspora groups to find out the level of service they receive from the Kenyan government during the coronavirus pandemic.
  1. Analyze the motive of diaspora citizens to participate in public/state leadership.
  1. Check how the diaspora population benefits from the emergency fund for coronavirus.

By Aggrey Mutambo


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