Saudi Arabia has emerged as the fastest-growing source of remittances, pointing to increasing migration of jobless Kenyan workers despite cases of abuse and cruel treatment of foreign domestic workers in the Middle East nation.
Fresh official data — based on cash flows through formal channels — indicate that diaspora remittances from Saudi Arabia have more than doubled in the past two years.
Statistics from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) show Sh22.65 billion ($188.79 million) was sent back home by Kenyans living in Saudi Arabia in the first eight months of the year.
This ranks the Gulf nation as the third-largest source of remittances for Kenya behind the United Kingdom (25.4 billion) and the United States (Sh188.8 billion).
The inflows have grown by three-quarters compared with Sh12.96 billion ($107.99 million) in the same period last year, and represents a 144.35 percent climb over Sh9.27 billion ($77.26 million) in 2020— marking the fastest growth over the period.
Saudi Arabia relies on millions of low-paid foreign workers such as housemaids, care-givers, nannies, drivers and security guards, who send money to their families back home every year.
More than 30 percent of the oil-rich kingdom’s population of 35 million are migrants, many from Asian and African countries.
But Saudi Arabia - like other Gulf nations such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman - has long faced criticism from rights groups for its visa-sponsorship system that leaves migrant workers open to abuse and exploitation.
Domestic workers are often kept under lock and key by their employers, forced to work more than 18 hours a day, deprived of food and wages and physically and sexually abused, activists say.
CBK data indicate the remittances from Saudi Arabia are on course to surpass cash wired from the UK, having overtaken South Africa that has been the second-largest source of money transfer from Kenyans working abroad. Foreign Affairs principal secretary Macharia Kamau told MPs that over 100,000 Kenyans engaged in non-domestic work in Saudi Arabia.
“Countries like Saudi Arabia, their traditions around house work are very ‘ancient’ so you find people who suffer terrible beatings and abuse are usually house helps,” Mr Kamau said.
“In that same country where we have over 100,000 Kenyans working in different capacities, hotels, taxis, they have no problem. So we have to ask ourselves if we are exporting the right category of personnel and do they have the right capacity and training to understand that culture.”
Visa-sponsorship rules known as the kafala system in the Gulf countries tie migrant workers to their employer and they cannot change jobs or leave the country without permission.
This has led to widespread abuse of migrant workers -- from passport confiscation to unpaid wages and excessive work hours, beatings and even rape by male members of the household.
Kenyan authorities have come under intense pressure to put in place measures to protect citizens fleeing joblessness in an economy struggling to create jobs for its growing youthful population.
In the Sh3.3 trillion budget for this financial year ending June 2023, lawmakers approved a Sh374 million expenditure to build a safe house in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, to give refuge to Kenyan workers facing abuse in that country.
Diaspora remittances from Saudi Arabia hit a monthly record of Sh3.19 billion ($26.6 million) compared with Sh1.99 billion ($16.56 million) in the same month last year and Sh1.25 billion ($10.43 million) in August 2020.
That has cemented its place as the third-largest source of the cash sent back home by Kenyans abroad, behind the US and the UK whose inflows have been softening on the back of decades-high inflation which has eaten into earnings.
Inflows from Kenyans living in the US grew at a slower rate of 12.17 percent in the eight-month period to Sh187.82 billion ($1.565 billion), while the UK’s dropped 11.10 percent to Sh25.44 billion.
Overall, remittances grew 11.44 percent year-over-year in the January-August 2022 period to Sh320.94 billion ($2.67 billion), consolidating its position as Kenya’s top forex earner ahead of tea exports, tourist receipts and horticultural exports.
President William Ruto has pledged to create a ministry to address issues affecting Kenya’s diaspora when he forms government in the coming days.
“The focus has been on remittances, while their fundamental rights as citizens have been neglected,” Dr Ruto said on September 13. “To correct this oversight, I pledge to elevate diaspora issues at a ministry level.”