Before Eritrea gained independence in 1991, the country went through a rough 30 year war of succession from Ethiopia, leading a lot of civilians to run away from their homes and seek refugee in the neighboring countries. Among those countries they escaped to is Kenya.
Kenya holds the second largest refugee population in Africa after Ethiopia with a population of over half a million of refugees who come from neighboring areas of conflict in Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
During the Eritrean war of independence from Ethiopia in the 70s, a family fled and came to Kenya where they hoped for a better life at least until peace was found in their country and they could return. However, this was not to be and with time passed they founded a family and settled in Kenya permanently. But despite been allowed to live in Kenya for over three decades they are still not allowed to become citizens by the government of Kenya, even their children are not allowed citizenship despite having being born and raised in Kenya.
I caught up with this second generation Eritrean refugees in Kenya to find out about their day to day lives, challenges and hopes. The two, Mesel Petros, 30, and Daniel Solomon 31 are cousins both born and raised in Kenya who despite being born here still hold the refugee status, they grew up together, went to the same schools and continue sharing the same challenges in their day to day lives.
Give us a bit of your backgrounds growing up in Kenya.
Mesel: Tough. Our parents were immigrants, holding the refugee status, but UN used to sponsor us for our schooling until some point, I think when we were in standard 7 (grade 7) after that they stopped. Later I went through secondary and college, I studied computer engineering.
Daniel: I studied hotel management, but now I practice mechanical engineering, I freelance because it’s very challenging, you can’t get papers you can’t get a Certificate of Good Conduct so no one can employ you.
Why did your parents come to Kenya?
Daniel: They came because of the war that was going on between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1970s. They got here in 1978, they went through Ethiopia and came to the border with Kenya through the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya
Photo: Prisca Watko
Usually it’s very hard for refugees to leave Kakuma camp to get into other parts of Kenya due to the strict regulations enforced, so how did your parents manage to get to Nairobi?
Daniel: Back then the regulation was not as tight as it is now. They came from Moyale through Marsabit to Nairobi. First they stayed at the camp and worked there for 7 years, our fathers started working as turn boys (EA: A turn boy is a person who rides on the back of a lorry and helps in unloading and loading of goods in the truck. Its a lowly job. Doesn't pay well) for lorries that would pass that route and that’s how we got here. Our parents had been given a pass by the United Nations to show that they were under the protection of the UN.
Did the pass give you benefits to settle and start a life anywhere in Kenya?
Daniel: Back then our parents were allowed to do that, then they soon introduced the “Alien” Identification certificate, which meant that you were restricted,. With this identity card you can’t get documents such as passports or anything so you are restricted from traveling, and you can’t get out of Kenya if you wanted to.
Are you given the alien certificate by the UN still?
Daniel: No right now it’s given by the Kenyan government, in Nyayo House (Immigration Department of Kenya)
Mesel: There is a different certificate the UN gives out at the refugee camps in Kenya but we now get it from the Kenyan government, it shows like we are under the law of the Kenyan government but we are not Kenyan.
Daniel: Yes. The thing is when we get odd jobs here and there we still have to pay taxes but we are not allowed to participate in society like Kenyans.
But was it always like that because after all you’re born in Kenya?
Daniel: It wasn’t always like that, I don’t know when it changed, I think sometimes back you could get identification certificates, but now you can’t get any Kenyan documentation, no Identification Card, no Good Conduct which means day to day life is made very difficult, it’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to travel, everything is difficult.
How old were you when you got the alien certificate?
Mesel: We were 18, we went to the immigration department and they handed them to us.
Daniel: You know even my parents didn’t have those documents, so they applied for citizenship since they have been in Kenya since 1978, for us we were born here, but still the government of Kenya gave us a rejection to our application.
Photo: Prisca Watko
Didn‘t you get a Kenyan Birth certificate when your mother has born you here?
Daniel: We did, we have birth certificates, we have all the necessary documents to make us Kenyan citizens, the only problem I think is they (Kenyan Government) doesn’t want us to be Kenyan citizens. We don’t even know who is the responsible official side for us, we might fall under. We don’t know whether we are under the United Nations and we don’t know whether we are under the Kenyan government.
But the Kenyan law states that people can become Kenyan citizens by birth, so this seems rather a peculiar case.
Mesel: We also don’t understand it, it’s like there‘s a grey line somewhere. I personally went to the immigration department, went through my parents file, I went through everything all the papers but still the people at immigration department don’t give you answers, they will never give you an answer no matter how much you ask. Right now we have given up on asking. One day I got arrested by the police, they saw my alien certificate and then I also handed them my birth certificate, they got very confused, if you have a birth certificate how can you still be considered an alien?
Daniel: We have tried everything. So now what happens is after every two years you have to go to the immigration department again and get your alien certificate renewed.
Mesel: I get very confused you know because if you have all the correct documents, you don’t know any other country, we were born and raised here, there is no difference between any Kenyan and us.
Have you tried lobbying maybe through members of parliaments or any local leaders to help you out?
Daniel: That is a bit tricky because you know it’s all about money, you can try to talk to them, give them money but they still give you the run around. We have tried a lot but nothing worked.
You have been talking a lot about travelling, do you want to leave Kenya? Would you rather be somewhere else?
Mesel: No it’s not that, it’s just that you don’t want to feel like you can’t move, like you are in a prison, even mentally it brings you down. I mean I would love to travel, say to Europe for instance but with a Kenyan passport. I love this country because it the only place I know. What is the use for instance to go through Libya to cross the ocean to go to Italy, I fail to understand why somebody should risk their life like that, so many people die, especially Eritreans, so many have died on that route.
Is travelling within Kenya a problem?
Mesel: No travelling in Kenya is easy but you can’t even go to neighbouring countries such as Uganda or even Tanzania. If you want to visit another country it’s a problem. Number two, even if you work hard enough to own anything, you are required to go every two years to get your alien certificate renewed, what if they don’t renew it and you own property, maybe land, maybe a house, what will you do?
There is a chance of your alien certificate not getting renewed?
Mesel: So far I have not heard or experienced such a case, but the fact that they always ask you to renew means there is the possibility.
Have you guys given up?
Daniel: We haven’t given up exactly. It’s just accepting and trying to find ways to survive, you know. Because this country is also corrupt,you have to pay for everything. There are people here who don’t even know a word of Swahili and they have Kenyan identification cards.
But I’d assume since you belong to a community (of Eritreans) you would all like to help each other since you are going through the same struggle?
Mesel: But you know like in every community, each person has its own challenges, there are classes in a community, there are those at the top, middle and bottom and so not everyone is equal in their achievements. If you’re rich it’s easy for you to get your documents maybe because you own a lot of property.
So it’s difficult for you guys to get formal employment but you are not limited to starting your own business?
Mesel: No it doesn’t limit us, but the thing is you have to pay taxes, but you don‘t get the rights of any other tax payer. The Indian business man here also have Alien Certificates, but they pay and thus have no trouble.
Daniel: We recently went to renew our certificates and they gave us a hard time and we tried to find out what the problem was but they couldn’t tell us so they gave us the run around for hours before eventually giving them to us to us.
Mesel: The key is documents, because if you don’t have them you are unable to move around comfortably and if you get arrested you have to bribe the cops to get released even if you have your alien documents. Recently we got stopped by the police as we were coming from the shopping centre, it was during the high terror alert after the terror attack on Westgate shopping mall, we got arrested and they took us to the next station in Shauri Moyo (area in Nairobi) we showed them all our documents but still they wouldn’t let us go, we had to pay a bribe to get out. So it’s very difficult for us, I don’t understand it but that is how it is.
So if you guys were born and raised in Shauri Moyo ( an upper middle income residential area) it must mean that it wasn’t that bad and your parents had a bit of money?
Daniel & Mesel: No, no, no
Daniel: We were born and brought up in Eastleigh (Eastleigh is an area in Nairobi identified with the Somali community and harbors a high population of Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants to Kenya) that is where our parents used to live. My parents both had jobs there, but as you know the area became too risky to live in after the terror attacks started taking place, there was a lot of profiling in the area for people who didn’t have Kenyan documents. The police would also target the immigrants, they called us foreigners, saying we have a lot of money and so they were always on the hunt to get bribes by randomly arresting people and detaining them for money. But the truth is the communities in Eastleigh especially the Somalis seem to have a lot of money, they have high rise buildings and shopping malls, so they do seem to be quite wealthy?
Mesel: Well I don’t think any refugee living in Kenya is wealthy or has a lot of money. Most of those buildings and business you see don’t belong to them or the money to set them up didn’t come from them.
Photo: Prisca Watko
So where did the money come from?
Daniel & Mesel laugh as if they secretly share a joke.
Mesel: You (Kenyans) see all those building in Eastleigh, big hotels and big business, and you guys think that a Somali who came to Kenya as a refugee made it like he is in New York and managed to get all that on his own, no it didn’t happen like that, that money to set this all up came from outside, not Kenya. We are not sure exactly who sends the money or where it comes from but they get a lot of financial support from outside.
Daniel: And the other thing such people have Kenyan documents, so they are at liberty to do almost whatever they feel like, including investing here.
So is it easier for Somalis to access Kenyan documents than Eritreans and Ethiopians?
Daniel & Mesel: Of course.
Daniel: Because they are more connected, in places like North Eastern Kenya the Somalis there have relatives all the way in Somalia and vice versa so it’s much easier for them to get documents due to such connections.
So what did your parents do for money?
Mesel: For my parents they used to sell Anjera, which is an Ethiopian Delicacy.
Daniel: My dad was a truck driver. They really worked hard to get us to where we are today.
Why didn’t you follow up in their business path?
Mesel: Personally I was not interested in the Anjera business it was not my thing, but I have some family members who still do it. Plus it’s also costly right now to run that business because of overhead costs.
Daniel: My sister, for us we are not looking for charity, we don’t want to be helped, we can help ourselves, we just would like to be given documents to enable us to do so, it’s very hard for us. I got a job and was going all the way to North Eastern Kenya, but they have a lot of police checks on the way and when you show them your alien certificate they tell you to go back to where you have come from. I once got stopped when traveling by bus and was put in holding for two hours, even the bus left me, I tried to talk to the police and in the end I just had to give them some money. So it’s really bad.
So all you want is documents?
Mesel: Yes, I personally I feel I have invested so much with this country, I was born here, I was raised here, when I work I get taxed, during the 1998 bombing I almost got killed in the attack but even after all this am still being told am not Kenyan. You know it’s better for someone to be told what they want to do with you, they can’t keep stringing you along, its better they tell you, you are not a refugee. In a matter of fact if you call someone a refugee it means to most of the people they are getting donations from the west, we don’t get anything. So this grey line is what we fail to understand, why call us refugees not unless you are benefiting from it? Maybe am paranoid. It’s a very deep and sensitive issue, I have even talked to leaders, people with big position and it always seems to be a grey line, there seems to be something we don’t know which is going on.
Photo: Prisca Watko
So some people may be benefitting on your behalf?
Mesel: Yes, there may be people benefiting. I have visited the UNHCR offices in Nairobi and I usually see a long queue of people, I think if they are refugees what is it they go to get there?
Daniel: Most of them usually go to make complaints, maybe say their life is on risk, and this will help them to be able to leave the country or move to another country. I also tried once to go to the UNHCR offices, that’s where they store files of refugees in Kenya, I tried to look for my parents file but I could not find it.
Why? It just disappeared?
Daniel: It just disappeared
Mesel: I think they sold it to other people that is what they do! If someone comes and gives good money they say ok, let’s give them this file and then thats why they can’t find your file.
Daniel: You know for us we can go to North Eastern Kenya, talk to those guys (Who?) there, pay them some money and get our Identification documents but why should we do that? We’ve been born here, we’ve been raised here, why should we have to do that?
Mesel: Have you ever heard of anywhere in the world where refugees pay taxes?
So if you had an opportunity to meet with leaders, or people that hold your fate what would you like to ask them?
Mesel: Why am I a refugee? Why can’t I access Kenyan identification documents, I was born here, raised here, what more? What’s the government’s eventual plan for us? One day at the immigration department I asked one of the people who work there about my status he said even if you get a child it will still be a refugee, the children of your children will still be refugees and so on.
So does this situation apply to many more people except you?
Daniel: Yes it happens to a lot of us, especially if you go to Eastleigh you’ll find large families in the same situations as us.
Do you have a refugee organization that maybe you can use to petition your issues to the government?
Daniel: No, we usually champion our own causes, like my dad he went through everything to try and get us registered but everywhere he went he was only rejected.
So even the UNHCR doesn’t support you in getting documents or any programs to support you, especially people like you who are second generation refugees, born here?
Mesel: No, we have never heard of such a thing, I don’t think it exists. The problem we are told is that our parents didn’t have Kenyan documents so we also can’t get them. In fact I just want someone to come and clarify to me so that I know why I cannot be Kenyan, that would give me peace of mind.
Have any of you in your community intermarried with Kenyans and does this help with the citizenship?
Mesel: We know some who got married or married Kenyans, not in our generation, the previous generation, but it didn’t help much because it’s also another long process you have to undergo. But for us we don’t want to be forced into such situations because we were born in Kenya, so why do we have to use such tactics to get citizenship?
Would you guys want to go back to Eritrea?
Mesel: One problem with that is that we don’t know Eritrea, also we don’t know what happens in that country. If you would have Kenyan identification, you could go see how it is there, what’s going on. But for now we know nothing about that country.
Your parents were forced out of their country because of war, do you think they would have loved to go back?
Daniel: Of course, I think they were waiting for peace before going back, that is why I think they didn’t invest so much in Kenya, but you know they never got to go back. For us we would like to visit but we know the country is under sanctions and no investments are going in, so we know it’s in a dire situation.
And you, if Kenya decided to take you back to Eritrea, would you agree to go back?
Mesel: First I would like to know why.
Daniel: But no one brought me here, I was born here, why should they take me back? Another thing is even in the news we still see a lot Eritreans running from their countries, coming to Kenya, why do you think that is happening?
Mesel: I think like everybody else or refugees from all other parts of the world, people are looking for better, greener pastures. The other thing is in Eritrea first of all there have been sanctions put in place which have reduced opportunities for investments and trade in the country and also all young people are required to be in the army, because Eritrea has a small population of about 5 million and a lot of potential threats which means that all able bodied men and women are needed to protect the country, so on one hand I understand the government’s position but on the other hand I also understand the young men and women with hopes and dreams which might force them to flee. I feel like the UN could change the situation for Eritrea, by asking for the sanctions on Eritrea to be lifted as it will change things a lot for the country.