Status-less Kenyans in the Diaspora-Private matter


By claiming that half of the estimated 400,000 Kenyans living in America have no immigration status, former Kenya Ambassador to the US, Elkanah Odembo sparked a debate that most Kenyans living abroad would rather not discuss.

The immigration status of most Kenyans living abroad is usually shrouded in mystery and secrecy that even their closest friends and families never get to know. It is a topic they shy from and also feel embarrassed about.

The reason is usually a mixture of fear and class status. Fear that immigration officials of the host countries might come knocking on the door with deportation orders should they get to know of the whereabouts of an illegal. Kenyans living abroad believe walls have ears.

A class fear because most Kenyans have created this impression that life abroad is cool, posh, sophisticated and endowed with plenty of material wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth.

People without good immigration status live a very unsettled life abroad. They lie low like an antelope and don’t know when it’s right to jump or run. They know their hunters will strike but don’t know when. They live each day at a time and sometimes from hand to mouth.

Lack of legitimate immigration status means those affected cannot find work. Those lucky enough to find any keep looking over their shoulders, just in case somebody reports them.

Apart from those who won Green Cards, a big number of Kenyan migrants especially to America, Canada, Australia and Europe are made up of students. Unfortunately, because of various reasons, some fail to maintain their student status. They allowed their visas to expire without any means to renew. This is the worst thing that can happen to a foreign student.

The only thing, therefore, these students could do is to go underground. This is the beginning of a long and torturous game of hide and seek with the authorities.

Others, instead of living squalor’s life underground were advised to seek political asylum – they are what most host nations disparagingly call bogus economic refugees. To many people, the line between economic and political asylum is very blurred and thin. They argue that it is because of bad politics and economic sabotage that people missed chances to empower themselves economically, hence found a reason to move to other countries in search of greener pastures.

However, not everybody who went to self-exile in America, Canada, Australia, or Europe got refugee or political asylum status. Thousands of applications get rejected.  Others wait for decisions on their applications for more than a decade. The wait always comes with psychological suffering, frustration and financial deprivation since they cannot work. Those whose fate was sealed and the only thing remaining was a deportation, go underground, thereby becoming status-less. They hang on to hope that one day, an opportunity will present itself again to enable them legalise their stay.

This is not something most Kenyans in that situation would like to discuss with anybody, apart from their immigration lawyers. Some don’t explain this to their families back home. They say all was well, even when it is terribly wrong.

Of cause there is a group of people who moved abroad, seized opportunities and made a killing. Those who made it here are the carriers of the posh and affluent image that most Kenyans back home associate with life in the West. They make everyone assume that roads in this part of the world are paved with gold but nothing is further from the truth. There are those who get trapped in the snare of the hippie lifestyle of alcohol and drugs and turn themselves into absolute tramps. Some have nowhere to call home and are dependent on State welfare benefits.  It is majority of these people that usually find it hard to return back home for they have nothing to show for all the years they lived in the land assumed to be flowing with milk and honey. It is them, too, who find themselves drawn into a life of crime as they struggle to survive in expensive cities with very little or no money at all.

Apart from the Kenyans that Amb Odembo said were status-less and in correctional facilities in America, the truth is that the number of Kenyans without proper immigration status around the world has continued to grow every year.

The global village is getting smaller due to modernisation of communication and transport. There is an aggressive quest for economic upward mobility by people from poorer countries which makes them look for greener pastures in the West and now the Middle East.

America and Europe have at the same time continued to make it very hard for more people to migrate by sealing off legal loopholes that had previously enabled people acquire permanent immigration status so easily for so long.

In Europe, migrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia who from the 50s to 90s found themselves encouraged to take up work as labourers, as bus and train drivers, industrial operatives, domestic workers and guards can no longer get employed.  These jobs have already been snatched up by migrants from Eastern Europe.–

By Joe Ngugi

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