Passengers at JKIA

Passengers gather outside Kenya Airways's departure terminal on March 6, 2019.  Tough living conditions have driven many young people to the edge, and they want out by seeking greener pastures abroad.

| File | AFP

Youth exodus: How unemployment has made daring abroad a Kenyan dream

At any one time, the lines at the passport centre at Nairobi’s Nyayo House are filled with young people seeking the all-important travel document.  Long pensive faces are the order of business as brokers make a kill, trying to hasten the process for these desperate youth, who have either secured employment out of the country or are in the process of seeking greener pastures aboard.

This scene is replicated across the passport centres in Mombasa, Kisumu, Embu, Nakuru, Kisii and Eldoret. Unemployment and tough living conditions have forced droves of young people to the edge, and they want out. Their first stop – is passport application.

Also, at any one time, long queues are witnessed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), as youths drag their suitcases heading for the golden dream.

For them, it is either Qatar, or Dubai, or with the brave ones Europe, Canada, Asia or the United States. 

This is a new reality, as many Kenyans, especially the youth, are in a massive exodus mood, wanting to leave the country in search of greener pastures, they say.  Temporarily, the only thing standing in their way is the acquisition of a passport, the essential travel document required to travel abroad.

The process of applying for and obtaining this document has lately become so difficult that the issue has not only been the subject of frustration on social media platforms but also of outrage and criticism from both the lowly and the mighty, who have expressed their disgust at the perennial delays in obtaining this all-important travel document.

John*, applied for a passport in early May this year, days after the Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security Kithure Kindiki assured that the machines at the Immigration Department had been repaired and the backlog would be cleared in a record 21 days.

Travel to Qatar

The hopeful applicant, who wanted to travel to Qatar for a plumbing job, was shocked to get an appointment to give his biometric details in August. He is now disappointed, believing that his chance of working abroad has effectively gone down the drain.

This comes at a time when Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua announced that his ministry has come up with a platform, Kazi Majuu, where Kenyans can go online and search for job opportunities around the world.

“This platform will provide Kenyans with direct access to international job listings, eliminating the need for intermediaries and connecting job seekers with employment opportunities across the globe.  Kenyans can go online and look for job opportunities all over the world. We will be posting a lot of opportunities from different countries. You go in there and you will find a section where you will put in your details to agents who are recruiting people from different parts of the world or even from this country," said Dr Mutua.

How exactly this plan will be implemented without addressing the eternal delays in obtaining passports, remains unknown.

"Launching Kazi Majuu when they are stopping the exodus of people leaving the country with excuses of passport printing malfunctions... it is ridiculous," said a Kenyan reacting to Dr Mutua's announcement.

There is currently a backlog of at least 70,000 passports, and the machine at the Immigration Department that the Nation has identified can only process 700 passports a day, yet applicants continue to apply for the vital document every day. 

There is no doubt that there is a "passport crisis" and the leader of the Thirdway Alliance Party, Ekuru Aukot, is not amused.

In a blistering open letter to President William Ruto, Dr Aukot said his party had "grave concerns about the issues surrounding the issuance and renewal of passports in Kenya".

He explained that they have received numerous complaints from citizens who have been adversely affected by significant delays in passport processing, and even told the story of an applicant who applied for the travel document in May 2022, made all the required payments and even completed the required biometric process, but is still waiting for his passport to be issued.

Passport issuance

"Mr President, Kenyans are looking to you to streamline the passport issuance process. The current delays not only cause significant hardship to citizens but also result in missed economic opportunities daily and facilitate corruption within the ministries," he said.

Whispers of discontent among unhappy applicants point to a harrowing experience in which they accuse some immigration officials of demanding bribes before serving them.  Several Kenyans have taken to the internet to call on the Interior boss, Prof Kindiki, to quickly investigate the matter.

Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans want to leave the country, some to study, but mostly for better job opportunities. Now it has become a joke among many young people that

"It seems the government has realised that we want to run away from the numerous taxes it has imposed on us and is now sabotaging our exit so that we are heavily taxed here in Kenya," Moses Kemirambo told the Nation.

Since coming to power, President William Ruto’s government has been on an overdrive to export labour, announcing nearly 400,000 job opportunities for Kenyans in various countries in recent months.

While hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at State House in May, President Ruto said he had inked a deal to employ 250,000 skilled and semi-skilled workers in Germany.

"We have agreed to set up a technical team from my office and the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Labour in both countries to initiate discussions, expedite procedures and formulate an appropriate framework for the export of labour to Germany," Dr Ruto said.

Earlier, the President also hinted at plans to sign 10 bilateral labour agreements in the next "few months" with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Canada and other countries interested in hiring Kenyan workers to boost remittances.

In a separate event, Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary (CS) Florence Bore said they had signed bilateral labour agreements with seven countries to help thousands of skilled unemployed Kenyans secure jobs abroad in various cadres as the government moves to tackle rising unemployment in the country.

High-income countries are facing severe labour shortages with job vacancies at historically high levels, in sharp contrast to Africa, which is wallowing in an unemployment crisis and rampant lack of decent work.

Nyayo House

People queue at the Department of Immigration Services passport control office at Nyayo House in Nairobi on May 21,  2018. 

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Speaking at Tom Mboya Labour College in Kisumu during the World Occupational Safety and Health Day celebrations, Ms Bore said Saudi Arabia alone offers about 130,000 opportunities for Kenya.

Ms Bore also urged all unemployed Kenyans to register with the National Labour Authority to take advantage of opportunities abroad and at home.

At the end of March, Trade and Industry CS Moses Kuria held talks with UK International Trade Minister Nigel Huddleston in London where the two countries agreed to work together to secure jobs for Kenyans and improve bilateral trade. The top destinations for Kenyans are Canada, Australia, South Africa and Germany, with Uganda topping the list.

Labour migration, if well managed, has the potential to positively transform households and communities, according to the Federation of Kenyan Employers (FKE).

Labour migration

FKE Executive Director Jacqueline Mugo said there are three major benefits of well-managed labour migration: employment and income opportunities for many unemployed Kenyans, skills and labour transfer and remittances by migrant workers.

"As employers, we support Africa's integration and safe, orderly, regular and well-managed labour migration. It is our hope that the regional and continental instruments such as the EAC Common Market Protocol and the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement will help Africa to realise the dream of an integrated Africa where its citizens can move and reside freely throughout Africa," said Ms Mugo.

With nearly three million Kenyans unemployed, the sound of working in a high-income economy may be exciting, although pundits have poked holes in the current labour export cause as thoughtless.

Mr Tom Mboya, a lecturer in international and public relations at Maseno University, said the government was using the issue of labour migration for public relations purposes instead of putting in place policies to create local job opportunities.

"I have never seen a government fighting to export labour. I have been surprised by the uninformed and non-evidence-based decisions. Why the push without a practical policy framework?" asked Mr Mboya.

"The government should come up with policies that create jobs locally. For example, why import maize instead of creating an opportunity to sustainably employ and retain Kenyans?"

This desire to export labour even landed Foreign CS Mutua in trouble in Kenya when he was trolled by netizens after his announcement of Canadian jobs for Kenyans in early May turned out to be fake.

The Canadian government dismissed his statement, saying: "There is disinformation circulating suggesting that special programmes are in place to welcome Kenyan immigrants. This is false and the immigration programmes referred to do not exist".

There's no baseline study on what the impact of a mass exodus of Kenyan professionals would be on local industries, particularly the health sector, which is suffering from a shortage of staff. However, FKE insists that there is no cause for alarm as Kenya has no shortage of young people and that a natural equilibrium will take place in due course.

"The slow growth of the economy and low job creation is driving those with skills to seek productive opportunities outside Kenya. This will remain the norm until the economy creates quality opportunities for the large idle labour force," said Ms Mugo.

According to Central Bank of Kenya statistics, diaspora remittances, which account for the largest share of current transfers in the secondary income account, increased by 15.8 per cent to Sh478.5 billion in 2022.

Export of labour

Ken Gichinga, chief economist at Mentoria Economics, argues that as a key factor in production and economic growth, the export of labour could have a positive impact on the economy, but also has its downside if not managed well.

"The positive side of the proposed policy is that it can give our young men and women an opportunity to get exposure to developed economies and an opportunity to earn an income that will support the country in terms of remittances," he says.

But he cautions that policymakers also need to consider incentives that will bring back professionals who leave the country and get the best exposure abroad to bring back the skills and benefit Kenya.

Kenya's net migration rate was 5.35 migrants per thousand population in 2020, down from 5.39 migrants per thousand population the previous year.  The decline was attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions, and the numbers are expected to increase following the declaration of an end to the pandemic crisis.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of passports processed and issued increased by 55.9 per cent to 426,137 in 2022. The KNBS said its survey shows that unemployment remains a worrying factor for Kenya's youth, who make up two-thirds of the country's unemployed population, and that the growth rate of their unemployment has been particularly pronounced since 2020.

Further research shows that the number of youth who are unemployed despite not being in education or training has increased by 68 per cent since 2019.

In 2022, the average number of young people falling into this category will be 3.12 million. Since 2019, the number of young people who are not in education or employment - and therefore inactive - has increased by 1.85 million (or 68.1 per cent).

Over the four years to 2022, the KNBS data also shows that the youth population will bear the heavy brunt of the population that remains unemployed for longer periods, accounting for an average of 77 per cent of the population that has been without a job for more than a year. Last year alone, at least 426,604 young people aged 20 to 34 reported being unemployed for more than 52 weeks, accounting for 74.8 per cent of all people in the country classified as unemployed for such a period.

"Long-term unemployment refers to all unemployed persons with a continuous period of unemployment of one year or more (52 weeks and more)," the latest KNBS labour force reports state.

Vocational training

According to the 2019 census, those with vocational training make up the majority of emigrants aged 15 and above, followed closely by those trained in business, engineering and technology. Most engineers are male, while most emigrants in health and medicine are female.

This perhaps explains the huge number of Kenyans applying for the US Diversity Visa programme, popularly known as the Green Card. So serious is Kenya's ambition to find jobs in the US that Lang'ata MP once joked that over 30 million Kenyans had applied for the Green Card in 2022.

Official statistics from the US State Department on the programme show that some 173,218 Kenyans applied for the 2021 lottery.  The travel ban imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in even fewer applications for the programme in 2020 and 2021. 

The data shows that the number of Kenyans seeking to migrate permanently to America through the lottery visa programme has dropped drastically over the past three years to 173,218 in 2021, compared to 570,081 in 2020 and 443,773 in 2019.

According to the statistics, 4.9 million Africans applied for green cards in 2021, a huge drop from the 10.8 million and 11.3 million applications in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Globally, 11.8 million people applied for an American green card in 2021, down from 22.4 million applicants in 2019 and 23.2 million in 2020.

By Stephen Otieno, Peter Mburu and Anita Chepkoech