Kenya: Migration

This is the second post out of the mini series of three, focusing on the concept of Migration within Kenya-an LIDC, which has limited influence and restricted ability to respond to change within the global migration system.



Kenya is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious country, home to one of the largest refugee populations in Africa and some of the world’s oldest refugee camps. On going policy developments are shaping migration, and Kenya’s role and strategic location in East Africa highlights political evolutions that continue to structure migration systems in Kenya. Kenya gained independence from the UK on 12th December 1963. It has a population close to 47 million that is set to reach 80 million by 2050. Kenya’s economy is the largest by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in East and Central Africa and it is a major hub for finance, communication and transportation services. Kenya is the 107th largest export economy in the world and it exports products such as: tea, horticultural products, coffee, petroleum products, fish, and cement. Kenya has a well-established economic set up, which has the potential to grow further, although corruption is hampering its economy as well as exacerbating issues such as violence and political instability meaning Kenya is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world.


Current Patterns of Emigration and Immigration


  • The vast majority of immigrants in Kenya are from other African countries and, of these, the majority are from East African countries or partner states. There are fewer numbers of immigrants from Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The overall size of the international migrant population has increased between 1990 and 2013, but is still only around 2 per cent of the entire population. Refugees account for approximately one third of the international migrant population.
  • The role of Al Shabaab in Somalia has encouraged people to migrate to Kenya for increased stability and safety, although many lack formal documentation, thus making them illegal immigrants.
  • Nairobi is the most important city in East Africa for trade and financial services thus attracts a number of non-refugee immigrants.
  • The Dadaab refugee complex is one of the oldest and most established refugee camps in the world. It has a population of around 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers and consists of four camps. 96.21% of the total population is from Somalia, a war torn, conflict riddled and poverty stricken country which has forced many people to move to Kenya.
  • The first camp was established in 1991, when refugees fleeing the civil war in Somalia started to cross the border into Kenya. A second influx occurred in 2011, when 130,000 refugees arrived, fleeing drought and famine in southern Somalia.
  • Kenya also hosts refugees from conflicts in Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi.


  • Migration from Kenya has often been linked with the pursuit of higher education abroad, and the return of such skills and experience to the so-called business of “building the nation.”
  • The emigration of Kenyans in large numbers is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the first two decades after independence in 1963, few Kenyans emigrated and lived abroad due to high transportation costs. However with the rise of globalisation and cheaper airfares, this has changed.
  • The main driver of emigration appears to be access to employment opportunities. Top destinations include the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and other African countries such as Uganda and Tanzania; however, Kenyans can be found in most regions of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Oceania.
  • Departures of citizens exceed arrivals of foreigners, meaning that Kenya has a negative net emigration rate. As of 2014 this was -0.22 per 1,000 persons. The skilled emigration rate is an estimated 35 per cent, raising concerns about loss of skilled personnel in key sectors. The health sector is a particular concern, with estimates of the emigration on rate of health professionals reaching as high as 51 per cent.
  • The United Kingdom has become a top destination for Kenyan migrants, and totalled more than 151,000 people in 2015.
  • In recent times migration to the Middle East for employment appears to be trending upwards, particularly to Saudi Arabia and this bilateral corridor is likely to be of great significance in the years to come.

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Migration Policies  

  • In 2007, the government sought to curb recruitment malpractices by enacting the Labor Institutions Act, which regulates cross-border recruitment by private employment agencies, including the registration requirements, agents’ obligations, and penalties for violations.
  • In 2009, Kenya drafted an overall migration policy, followed the next year by a national labour migration policy. These policies encompass the deployment of Kenyan workers, their labour rights and protections while abroad.
  • In 2015, Kenya implemented a diaspora policy focused on harnessing the potential of its nationals abroad to contribute to the country’s economic development. The policy seeks to facilitate remittance inflows.
  • Despite these mechanisms proposed to enhance the protection of workers abroad, Kenya has not developed a comprehensive strategy to address reported labour abuses, particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. Kenya has not created the same protection infrastructure as key migrant-sending Asian countries, such as an official labour and welfare office, safe shelter houses, and other protection initiatives.
  • Kenya has increasingly been faced with a dilemma: how to prioritize its economic interests through bilateral trade relations while also guaranteeing protection for its citizens abroad, whose well-being often rests with key trading partners. While Kenya’s labour protection policy for workers abroad remains limited, its economic diplomacy in the GCC region has intensified with the pursuit of various trade partnerships. In 2011, Kenya and the United Arab Emirates signed an agreement to increase bilateral trade. The agreement seeks to prevent double taxation on businesses, finalize agreements on customs support, and promote and protect investments. In 2014, Kenya signed a major agreement with Qatar to increase bilateral maritime cooperation by creating a direct shipping route between Mombasa and Doha.
  • Given a bilateral deal signed by both countries in 2015 to recruit 100,000 Kenyans for jobs in the United Arab Emirates, Kenyan flows are expected to increase in the coming years.

Human trafficking

  • While there is limited data on human trafficking in the country, two main trafficking routes have been identified: the north-eastern route, which transits Garissa on the Kenya-Somalia border; and the western route between Kenya and Uganda at the Busia-Malaba border point. A trend of migration on and trafficking from Kenya to the Middle East has been noted, where Kenyans are at risk of exploitation on in domestic servitude, massage parlours or brothels, or being forced into manual labour.
  • Children and girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking into sex tourism. Human trafficking in Kenya is said to have a value of USD 40 million on the black market.



  • Kenya-Britain: This bilateral corridor represents economic migrants who are looking to improve their employment prospects as well as gain a better quality of life and standard of living. For similar reasons there are also many links to America
  • China-Kenya: Over the last decade, China has played a significant role in the Kenyan economy through investment in roads, and other infrastructure. This has resulted in many Chinese locating to Kenya in order to work and manage large-scale projects.
  • Kenya-UAE Bilateral Corridor: In recent years, temporary labor migration from Kenya to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has increased significantly. Seeking to fill labor shortages in sectors such as construction and other service-based jobs ahead of the UAE Expo in 2020 and the Qatar World Cup in 2022, some Gulf countries and employers have turned to Kenya as a fresh source of inexpensive labor—particularly as Asian countries impose restrictions on sending workers to the region. For Kenyans, rising unemployment and instability at home, combined with the difficulty of gaining entry to Western countries and the GCC region’s economic growth and proximity, have piqued the interest of would-be migrants.
  • In contrast, semi- and low-skilled workers have dominated Kenyan migration to the Gulf. Driven by a lack of opportunities at home, Kenyans are recruited as domestic workers, construction laborers, cleaners, hospitality servers, security officers, and taxi drivers. Migrants in these industries are often vulnerable to illegal and/or unethical recruitment practices, labor exploitation, and deskilling (occupational downward mobility). In particular, Kenyan domestic workers, who began arriving significantly in the Gulf countries after Ethiopia temporarily banned the deployment of its domestic workers in 2013, are often misled with fake job offers to lure them to migrate.
  • In response to a high rate of reported labor abuses among Kenyan workers in the region, particularly domestic workers, Kenya imposed a ban on labour migration to the GCC countries in 2012; it then overturned the ban in November 2013. While the ban was in place, some would-be migrants paid corrupt officials in order to secure employment in the Gulf countries. Some observers argue the government lifted the ban in response to the strong lobbying effort made by recruitment agency associations in Kenya.


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Opportunities and Challenges

  • Chinese Investment in infrastructure in Kenya has been criticised as being like modern day colonialism and a repeat of China’s role in Nigeria. They went into Nigeria, an oil rich nation and made a deal that they would receive a fixed price for oil for the next 30 years, in exchange for roads and railways. However they shipped their own cheap labour (mainly Chinese prisoners), which did not create as many employment opportunities for locals. The Chinese left a legacy and were trying to show their global dominance. That being said countries such as Kenya would certainly benefit in the long run from this infrastructure as it leads to further investment and economic prosperity.
  • Kenya vision 2030-this long-term national development policy aims to transform Kenya into a ‘newly industrialising, middle income country’ by 2030 and provide a high quality, clean and secure environment to all its citizens. It comprises of three main pillars: economic, social and political. The economic pillar aims to achieve an average economic growth rate of 10% per annum until 2030. The political pillar aims to tackle issue within the government including corruption, and the democratic system. Finally the social pillar is to increase the standard of living and conditions for all Kenyans.

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  • Kenya benefits from its emigrants as they send back remittances which help support the GDP of the country and if citizens return after having acquired new skills this can be particularly useful in reducing poverty and improving the economy. However Kenya also has political issues of its own as seen with the recent presidential elections and many citizens have not returned, resulting in skill shortages and a negative net migration. Further, emigrants in the UAE are facing poor conditions and are receiving much lower wages than they were promised, thus reducing the value of remittances and making exploitation more likely.
  • Immigration can be good if workers are skilled or if countries like China are building infrastructure; however refugees from Somalia have few skills and often locate in camps or slums, thus contributing very little to the economy and instead increasing social tensions between different ethnicities.

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