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Ideas & Debate

Kenyans stranded abroad put foreign officials on the spot

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau
Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Kenya's diplomatic dealings with China have come under the spotlight in recent days after videos showing Kenyans and nationals of other African countries complaining of Covid-19-related discrimination in Guangzhou city went viral on social media platforms.

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau did not help matters when he appeared to echo the official Beijing explanation that those kicked out into the streets were in violation of measures being implemented in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic to curb its spread.

But as more videos emerged showing blacks being denied entry into supermarket malls and even hospitals amid rising protestations, the Kenyan embassy in Beijing now says that it is ready to evacuate Kenyans living in China if they can meet the cost of the one-way flight among other conditionalities.

They include requirements that one must hold a passport, must be free of Covid-19 with a certificate to that effect and must be ready to go for compulsory quarantine for 14 to 28 days upon arrival.

"Please note that the departure will be from Guangzhou on the date to be determined immediately the above information is availed," the Kenyan embassy in China said in a statement.

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Although the conditions for evacuation are controversial, they represent a climbdown from Foreign Affairs officials who have been accused of dragging their feet in responding to the plight of Kenyans abroad after the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

When Kenyan students in Wuhan city, where Covid-19 is documented to have originated, first made appeals for their repatriation early this year amid dwindling finances and essentials such as food, face masks and sanitisers, Kenya's ambassador to Beijing Sarah Serem said it was for their own good that they remain there since the Chinese were better prepared to tackle the pandemic.

She even wrote to the students’ representatives stating that she had put them in her prayers.

This even as other countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritius, Mauritania, Morocco, Seychelles, South Africa and Tunisia sent planes to evacuate their citizens studying in the city.

Mr Kamau, responding to questions by this writer about the fate of the Kenyans in Wuhan, dismissed suggestions that Kenya had abandoned its nationals in the midst of a pandemic.

"Silly. I thought you were a serious journalist. How can you use the word abandon? You think people's lives is a joke (sic)," he said on January 29 this year.

Since then many more people have raised their voices demanding clear answers from officials like Mr Kamau.

A crescendo of public criticism has put President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration on the spot.

Among those who have criticised the government response to the reports of mistreatment of blacks in China is former Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang'ula — on whose watch Kenya evacuated its nationals from South Africa to save them from xenophobic attacks in 2008.

"Our embassy in China is a big letdown,” Mr Wetang’ula, now Bungoma Senator, tweeted at the weekend while scoffing at plans to force the Kenyans to foot their own evacuation costs.

“President Kibaki ordered us to evacuate Kenyans from South Africa when they faced xenophobic attacks and we did,” he said. “You can't offer distressed Kenyans an evacuation at their own cost. Arrange KQ planes to lift our people. Pay from the Covid-19 fund.”

The dilemma Kenyans living in China and other countries where evacuation flights are being organised such as United Arab Emirates, India and the United Kingdom face is that tickets are more costly than is usually the case.

Some, if not most, of them might not afford the tickets given that the pandemic has hit people in the pockets in the last three months as economies went into lockdown mode.

However, it is not just Kenyans who are being asked to pay for their tickets. British High Commissioner to Kenya Jane Marriot has asked British nationals in Kenya who desire to leave the country to take advantage of a Kenya Airways flight that leaves Nairobi on Friday at their own cost though they have the option of taking a government-backed loan.

With a ticket going for $1,746 (Sh186,000), some want the British government to airlift them using money from a special repatriation fund that was set up.

However, the envoy says charter flights supported by the UK taxpayer are focused in countries where there are no scheduled commercial options.

"We have ad hoc commercial options for Kenya, so no charter planned. Know it is not cheap. Hence support for loans," she responded to a concern raised by one British national.

The European Union member states have also repatriated their nationals from Kenya using charter flights, which must log their intentions with Kenyan authorities 72 hours before touchdown, carry no passengers and be fumigated.

The latest was a KLM flight that was organised by the Netherlands to evacuate citizens of EU member states, including French diplomats suspected to have Covid-19.

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