Is job scarcity raising Kenyans’ urge to migrate?

The huge demand for passports at Nyayo House points to the exodus

In Summary

• On one hand, Kenya is suffering brain drain. On the other, it is gaining remittances

An immigration staffer holds an e-passport at Nyayo House
An immigration staffer holds an e-passport at Nyayo House
Image: FILE

The crisis with passport production highlights the rapid increase in Kenyans wanting to leave the country in search of employment. By the government's own admission, there simply aren't enough jobs for all jobseekers.

"The economy is on a slowdown. There is hardly any employment in Kenya, but we are going to build the economy with your support," Foreign Affairs CS Alfred Mutua said last November during a meeting with the Kenyan community in South Korea.

The support Mutua was talking about is the money sent home by Kenyans working abroad. The country receives about $4 billion a year (Sh582 billion) from diaspora Kenyans. These remittances have become one of Kenya's top foreign exchange earners, alongside horticultural produce, tea exports and tourism.

The money migrant workers send home boosts the economy, but Kenya is losing out on skilled personnel. With time, many of them may choose to permanently settle in the countries where they found employment. As the number of jobseekers grows each year, even the Kenyans who had never thought of working abroad are seriously considering the move.


Migration is not a new phenomenon in human history. Today's migrants think of themselves as relocating for economic reasons, but they are part of an evolutionary process that has helped humans colonise every continent on earth. The United Nations recognises the ancient roots of human migration.

"Since the earliest times, humanity has been on the move. Some people move in search of work or economic opportunities, to join family, or to study. Others move to escape conflict, persecution, terrorism or human rights violations," the UN says in a statement.

While many individuals migrate out of choice, many others migrate out of necessity. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide was 79.5 million at the end of 2019. Of these, 26 million were refugees, 45.7 million people were internally displaced and 7.8 million were asylum seekers from various countries.

Climate change is emerging as another cause of migration. The World Bank predicts that more than 143 million people may soon become "climate migrants", driven from their homes by floods, droughts and water scarcity.

The National Geographic magazine traces human migration to hundreds of thousands of years ago. The ancestors of modern humans began moving from Africa to the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Australia and the American continent. Those migrations were likely driven by climate, food availability and other environmental factors.

As time passed by and cultures settled down, war and colonialism began to fuel migrations. At least 12 million Africans were forcibly relocated to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade between 1500 and the 1860s. Migration continues in the 21st century as seen in the boatloads of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe, as others scramble across the US–Mexico border.

Interestingly, recent findings show that it is not always the poorest or downtrodden who migrate to other countries. Migration is more often a characteristic of people who can afford to travel.

"The poorest people simply do not have the means to escape war and poverty and remain trapped in their country or in the neighbouring one," Prof Francesco Castelli, an Italian professor, says.

His country is among those worst affected by the influx of migrants from across the Mediterranean Sea. In his opinion, the stereotype of illiterate, poor and rural migrants reaching the borders of affluent countries has to be abandoned.


Castelli says that some degree of entrepreneurship, educational level, social and financial support is usually required for global south-to-north economic migration. Personal characteristics and choices also play a role.

"In particular, social media encourages people to leave their origin countries by raising awareness of living conditions in the affluent world, albeit often grossly exaggerated," Castelli noted in the Journal of Travel Medicine.

The presence of a diaspora in the destination country is a key attraction to prospective immigrants. People are more likely to move to a place where they will find others from their home country.

Another report argues that the processes of development have increased the capability and aspiration of Africans to migrate. The report, appearing in Comparative Migration Studies, shows that African countries with higher levels of development, such as those in North Africa or coastal West Africa, have more people migrating outwards compared to poorer countries on the continent.

Poor people do also migrate, but they tend to do so less often and over smaller distances. This also seems to explain why the skilled and relatively wealthy are overrepresented among long-distance international migrants. The higher skilled, therefore, tend to migrate more and over larger distances.

"Improved access to information and exposure to other wealthy lifestyles conveyed through education, media and advertising tend to change people's perceptions of the 'good life'," reads part of the report. Lots of migrants are attracted by the perception of a good life in wealthier countries.

Locally, there is consensus that more Kenyan professionals are looking for job opportunities elsewhere. Fiona Umulisa, regional head of financial services firm Grey, believes Kenyans are well qualified for overseas jobs.

"High literacy levels, excellent work competence and high IT savvy is making Kenyan professionals more attractive to the international job market," Omulusa says.

Of relevance to her line of work is the prediction that money sent home by the Kenyan diaspora could increase by as much as 10 per cent each year. Indeed, one of President William Ruto's goals is to have more Kenyans working abroad to increase the country's foreign exchange earnings.

"Germany, America and Canada have asked Kenyans to go work in those countries," President Ruto said in June. "We need one million more Kenyans to work outside so that we can use our labour to grow our economy and change the fortune of our young people."

As Kenyan job seekers look beyond the borders, there are people aspiring to migrate to Kenya for economic opportunities. The top five sources of migration into the country were Somalia, Uganda, South Sudan the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says migrants comprised 2 per cent of the Kenyan population as of 2020.

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