Ideas & Debate

Why Kenya’s immigration pattern fans resentment

A Chinese worker carries out a feasibility study on the standard gauge railway, one of the projects financed by China. Photo/FILE
A Chinese worker carries out a feasibility study on the standard gauge railway, one of the projects financed by China. The project is expected to create 30,000 and 2,500 jobs for Kenyans and Chinese respectively. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Immigration and Africa. When these two words are said in the same sentence, they conjure up images of Africans fleeing from the continent for foreign lands, mainly in the global North, in search of a ‘better life’.

However, this good life sometimes never materialises. The International Organisation of Migration states that many Kenyans seeking employment abroad have become victims of human trafficking and smuggling.

They often find themselves being exploited by unscrupulous employers due to a lack of information and government support to ensure genuine and fair employment. Further, emigration has led to an African ‘brain drain’ as the continent loses some of its best minds to other countries.

However, something is changing. With the pronounced optimism about the continent, Africa is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for foreigners to work and live. Africa is no longer ‘the hopeless continent; it now houses ‘Lion economies’ rising in the midst of renaissance imbued with hope.

In the past, the typical immigrants into Kenya and indeed Africa were those that were here to ‘help’ the country and live in ‘onerous’ conditions that exemplified selflessness.

So immigration isn’t new but there is a fresh twist to the plot — foreigners seem to be increasingly choosing Kenya and Africa as a prized location to move to and start a new life.

Although some still come with the colonial mentality of saving Africa, more foreigners consider coming to Kenya as an opportunity to make money, whether as an entrepreneur or an employee.

One country with notable population influxes into the country is China. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, estimates the total population of Chinese working and living in Africa to be as many as 750,000. The trend is not expected to change.

It is, therefore, wise to analyse and explore the economic implications of the immigration as well as some of the problems it is causing or is likely to cause.  

The biggest concern is immigrants never enter Kenya at the base of the pyramid, but rather join an immigrant elite at the top of the socio-economic ladder.

European and North American immigrants tend to be expatriates who have cushy salaries, live in exclusive suburbs, have an arm-load of household support and live a life in the more affluent economic bracket with a lifestyle most could probably never afford in their home countries.

This rarely ever happens when Kenyans migrate to the West — they almost never end up at the top of the economic ladder. The problem with immigrants consistently landing at the top end of the pyramid in Kenya is one of perception to economic access and socio-economic graduation.

Life is still hard for many Kenyans and opportunities to get a step up can be difficult. Networks, connections, skills and an awareness of available opportunities are required for Kenyans to move up the social ladder. Many do not have this combination of variables.

Those in underdeveloped rural areas are mostly left out of the loop. So there is a risk of the development of an upper crust of an immigrant elite that have a much better quality of life than the average Kenyan.

Will continued immigration make Kenyans feel and begin to believe that it is easier for foreigners to make it in the country than it is for them? If they find that economic and career opportunities are presented to and exploited by foreigners more than them, it may be an unsettling dynamic as it seeds a sense of unfairness and the feeling that Kenyans working hard will never get access to the lifestyle that foreigners do.

Kenyans may feel they have been locked out of the prosperity in their own country. This is an emerging economic dynamic that we need to be aware of and manage. Another concern is that even in local projects, many jobs are reserved for expatriates. Foreigners do work that perhaps Kenyans could have done.

Disquiet has in the past greeted infrastructure deals signed by Chinese firms, in which a substantial amount of labour for the project were reserved for Chinese short term immigrants.

This creates the perception that Kenyans are being shut out of benefiting from the inflow of Chinese investment. Although the standard gauge railway now promises to employ 30,000 Kenyans and 2,500 Chinese, this may have been informed by an outcry earlier last year when it was announced that 5,000 Chinese would be brought into the country for the project.

Kenyans felt that jobs were being given to Chinese workers that could have gone to locals. This is an immigration dynamic directly linked to economic access in the mind of the public that has to be well managed.

If Kenyans feel that foreign investment comes with foreigners ‘taking jobs’ from locals, it could create the opinion that investment promotes immigration that ostracises citizens from opportunities in their own country.

Immigration has also created disgruntlement among traders to the extent that some have even petitioned for certain immigrants to leave the country. It was not too long ago that some traders called for the expulsion of Chinese nationals who they claimed were abusing tourist visas to come into the country and peddle cheap goods, often undercutting prices offered by locals.

Even though it can be said that immigrants offering cheap goods is positive as the poor stand to benefit from low cost goods, but if immigration threatens the means through which some Kenyans earn a living, it can catalyse great discontent and resentment.

So while Kenyans appreciate large scale investment from China and hold positive sentiments about this type of economic interaction, they may not be comfortable with Chinese immigrants setting up shop in local markets to hawk alongside other Kenyans who rely on the same outlets to eke out a living. This immigration dynamic ought to be strategically handled with sober-mindedness to avoid economic and diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

These immigration issues are not an imminent threat to Kenya’s stability but they are an important dynamic to be cognisant of because if they are not well managed, they could fester over decades and eventually explode.

Obviously Kenya benefits from immigration and foreigners can be important sources of innovation as well as fill crucial specialised skill gaps. At the same time immigration creates a set of complex variables that can make Kenyans feel that foreigners stand a better chance at gaining economically than they do.

As Kenya enters 2015, we need to be mindful of the complexity of immigration to mitigate any negative consequences it may prompt.

Ms Were is a development economist.
[email protected]