Stranded and penniless in the diaspora at a time of Covid-19

Some have been thrown out of their houses and hotel rooms and cannot retreat to the comfort of home for lack of flights and evacuation hurdles

In Summary

• Many had not saved for such a crisis, with some having overstayed their visas

• About 10 Kenyans living abroad have succumbed to the disease, and counting

President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the diaspora in London after attending the Somalia Conference
President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the diaspora in London after attending the Somalia Conference
Image: FILE

When an Emirates plane from the UAE recently flew to Nairobi, the Kenyan government asked the airline to carry some Kenyans who had been asking to be evacuated.

Despite the distress calls the government had received from about 300 Kenyans indicating they were willing to pay for their flights, only 13 showed up.

This sums up the dilemma many of the about 3 million Kenyans in the diaspora are caught up in as the coronavirus wreaks havoc around the world.


They had travelled for work, further studies, treatment or tourism, only to be stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Many of them have run out of cash for lack of savings or loss of jobs, while others had long overstayed their visas even before the pandemic, leaving them in legal limbo.

Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau said the fact that many countries are either on partial or full lockdown has made the situation worse as embassies are not in operation.

In a session with journalists, he said ambassadors have been forced to strain the few staff working from home to try and reach out to those in dire need, but the situation is not getting better.

The PS said they have noted that most of these citizens have lost their jobs, while others have been sent on compulsory unpaid leave.

Kamau said many countries have ceased facilitation of international travel, making it even harder for the government to evacuate them.

“We find ourselves uniquely challenged in responding to distress calls from our diaspora in the over 140 countries we have a footprint. Our embassies are only in 54 countries and our staff are overwhelmed,” he said.

Although the possibility of immediate evacuation is limited, plans must be put in place to help those Kenyans come home as soon as global conditions allow and flights become viable
Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau


Kamau said Kenyans in the US, Canada, Middle East and European countries like Italy, Spain, France and the UK are the worst affected.


The Star has established that the most affected are students, with others having been thrown out of their hotel rooms.

An ambassador who spoke to the Star said the situation is becoming worse as there are those who have already been thrown out of their houses.

The ambassador, who requested anonymity, said they have been forced to use their own money to support some of the affected Kenyans, but if the situation does not normalise soon, things will be bad for them.

PS Kamau said the situation is likely going to last for about three to six months.

“We must be prepared to face up to the situation. Right now there is nothing much we can do until the travel bans are lifted. We have been in purposeful engagements with all governments across the world," he said.

"We have written to them asking them to look after Kenyans just as we look after the international community here in Nairobi to ensure no harm befalls them.”

About 10 Kenyans living abroad have so far succumbed to the disease. The government says due to logistical challenges, these bodies won’t be brought home but rather be buried where they are in accordance with Covid-19 protocols in those countries.

This also includes those who have died in the last one month, either while seeking treatment or under any circumstances.

The Star has established that about 160 people are stranded in India due to the current lockdown in that country.

In China, according to a senior director at the Foreign Affairs ministry, there are some 100 Kenyans without valid travel documents who are stranded.

Some other 18 Kenyans who had travelled as tourists in Australia are also stranded, with Iran having over 200 students stranded.

Several other students and training assistants are stranded in Spain, Hungary and France.

It is estimated that 23,000 Kenyans are stranded in Australia, New Zealand, France and Iran.


Though the government has dismissed claims it has ruled out evacuating these Kenyans, the reality is that under the circumstances, it is virtually impossible for them to come home.

Most of them are on lockdown with no form of movement allowed on land, sea or air. Since there is no diaspora fund to cater for them, it is impossible for the government to deploy charter flights to pick them.

While meeting the National Assembly’s Defence and Foreign Relations Committee, PS Kamau said the situation deserves heightened attention.

“Although the possibility of immediate evacuation is limited, plans must be put in place to help those Kenyans come home as soon as global conditions allow and flights become viable,” he said.

Kamau told the committee led by Katoo Ole Metito that should evacuation become viable, flights would be of necessity from point to point.

“This is because commissioning of an aircraft to move from airport to airport would not be possible, owing to global airspace lockdowns,” he said.

He said some of the Kenyans who are stranded are undocumented, and the ministry is facing challenges in trying to respond to their calls.

Some travelled on tourist visas but these expired. Others went as students and refused to come back and have been in these countries for five or six years without valid documents.

On May 4, a chartered plane is expected to leave the UK headed to the country. It was initially scheduled for April 25 but was cancelled at the last minute. Those who can afford tickets have been asked to book.

The catch is that they must obtain tests proving they are corona-negative, in a country that only does tests for patients who showed symptoms and had to be taken to hospital.


In its efforts to fight a second wave of infection, China, where the disease originated, has been on spot for racial profiling of Africans.

Kamau admitted that several Kenyans, although without valid travel documents, had been discriminated, assaulted and denied access to essential services.

In viral videos and photos, individuals of Africa origin were captured, some sleeping outside on the streets, others being beaten by the police. This sparked public outrage, more so after the government delayed to respond.

Nominated Senator Isaac Mwaura wrote in an opinion piece, “This is totally unacceptable. The abuses have been widespread, affecting people who have paid their rent and with valid visas.

“How can one explain, for example, McDonald outlets in Guangzhou issuing a directive that black people shouldn't be served, or justify the images of pregnant women sleeping in the streets? The crisis brings to the fore the challenges that Kenyans in the diaspora face.”

Mwaura said the way the government has handled the population during this crisis is a clear indication that there are no structures to cater for their welfare.

“Discriminated in a foreign land and forsaken at home, diasporans are left to their own devices,” he said.

Edited by Tom Jalio

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