The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives and operations, creating new challenges as well as opportunities. The pandemic has also highlighted immigration issues that need to be addressed.
Immigration plays a pivotal role in economic growth and development. At a basic level, it determines who enters or departs a country. One condition of entry is that a visitor or returning resident should not carry any contagious disease, which is why many countries have imposed cross-border movement protocols like border closures and lockdowns to curb spread of the pandemic. However, as its impact evolves, it is becoming clear that the effective management of the pandemic requires reengineering of immigration processes, policies, precepts and practices.
East African Community (EAC) partner states have approached the pandemic from different vantage points. While South Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda imposed lockdowns, Tanzania and Burundi closely monitored the situation without interrupting day-to-day movement and activities. Kenya, on the other hand, opted for a curfew and the cessation of movement. All countries in the region closed their borders but have continued to allow cargo movement and approve the evacuation of foreign nationals.
The different and evolving reactions to the pandemic have had many immigration ramifications. Many people have found themselves locked out of their domiciles. To ease immigrations, Ugandan and Kenyan authorities recently automated regularisation services. Even so, five immigration concerns still need to be addressed: immigration status, tonalities in immigration policy, immigration guidelines on new employment categories, processing timelines and community integration.
The risk of being unlawfully present worries visitors to EAC countries. Immigration authorities have reacted differently.Tanzania has provided a general extension to foreign nationals whereas Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya have automated the regularisation of status.
The regularisation of status could create a post-pandemic illegality as some foreign nationals eventually find themselves in the improperly documented persons category. We anticipate a rising number of cases of persons with expired status, without status or no travel documents. Immigration laws in the region anticipate lesser penalties for voluntarily self-disclosure and therefore affected persons should make haste to remediate their situations.
Foreigners should always make a point of understanding and appreciating the tonalities in immigration policy in their countries of residence but particularly during times of uncertainty like the Covid-19 pandemic.
Companies employing foreign nationals may question whether immigration authorities will still show fair consideration for applications for immigration documents during the pandemic period. These concerns require clear responses from authorities.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents situations that will eventually re-orient our immigration processes and services. For example, the harmonised permit categories within the EAC may not be as comprehensive as they need to be. Whereas Rwanda has diversified the classifications, more needs to be done to make the categories more inclusive.
Spousal permits and permits associated with virtual offshore service providers characterise the new normal and present new avenues for the re-categorisation of permit classes. How will we treat a foreign national virtually supporting a company in the US from Kenya? Should a visitor’s pass or a dependent’s pass suffice? Policy or legislative guidelines have not been issued to the satisfaction of foreign nationals in these and other cases.
The stable and predictable processing timelines we had come to expect prior to the pandemic have now shifted. Initially, fear gripped and informed operations in many government offices.
In Kenya, most offices operated in shifts and allowed vulnerable officers to work from home. With a skeletal staff, the decision-making wheel took longer to turn.
As a result, Kenya and other countries in the EAC have reported intermittent delays in the determination of immigration applications and other processes.
And then there’s the concern touching on suspicion associated with the spread of the virus and the perceived risk posed by foreign nationals from certain countries.
This suspicion has made it more difficult for foreign nationals to integrate with local communities. At all times, government immigration policy needs to foster a safe and enabling environment for the integration and movement of foreign nationals within and between states. Moving foreward, EAC states need to relook their immigration processes as a matter of urgency.
The effective management of the pandemic requires governments to communicate clearly than through the informative notices so far dispatched.
The needs, interests and concerns of the foreign national population should be considered and addressed. Furthermore, EAC partner states should avoid diplomatic spats by observing the immigration structures and procedures envisaged in the EAC immigration protocols.
EAC partner states need to identify best practices that will benefit their residents and visitors alike, including the harmonisation of immigration processes across the region.
Aswani is a senior manager with PwC Kenya’s People & Organisation unit in Tax, specialising in immigration services