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Migration and Development in Kenya

Sreya Chadalavada

The Republic of Kenya is a country of more than 50 million people located in the Horn of Africa region on the eastern coast. Kenya has a lower middle income economy and is the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, lower middle-income economies are defined as those with a GNI per capita between $1,036 and $4,045. Over the past decade, Kenya has implemented reforms resulting in sustained economic growth, social development, and political stability gains.

However, the country still has key development challenges including poverty, transparency and accountability, climate change, and vulnerability of the economy to internal and external shocks (World Bank). With such a large population and continued development, Kenya has a constant in and out flow of migration. Despite the increase in birth rates and immigration, Kenya’s overall population is declining due to emigration. People emigrating from Kenya are leaving largely because of economic, labor market, political, demographic, and social factors. Some specific examples include political instability, corruption, reduction of national income, medical treatment, unequal development, urbanization of poverty, and climate change. Migration is a subject that is becoming increasingly recognized as a major issue of human development and has the ability to contribute to socioeconomic transformation when properly managed. Some of these benefits are remittances, creation of employment opportunities, acquisition of new knowledge and skills, and capital transfer. However, when poorly managed, migration can destabilize national and regional security and development. Gaining a critical understanding through observation of the historical trends and drivers of migration can help utilize the inevitable process for development and poverty reduction.

Kenya’s migration history can be divided into incremental periods of time often categorized as waves. The first wave came around the time of independence during the 1950’s and 1960’s. During this time a small number of Kenyans emigrated to acquire specific skills that were unavailable in Kenya. They were motivated by the anti-colonial rhetoric after World War II that encouraged self determination. There were several scholarships made available by international organizations in the United Kingdom and United States. The idea was that after completing their degrees, students would come back to Kenya to work in the available positions. Among some of the first student emigrants was first president Jomo Kenyatta. Once he rose to power after independence in 1963, Kenyatta made government funding available for Kenyans pursuing higher education in fields that would be beneficial to the country. Pre-1960 most Kenyan immigrants went to the UK but the tightening of immigration policy post independence of most African countries and the need for skilled human capital in the US led to a shift of a larger outflow of skilled manpower to the US (Oucho et al.). The second wave took place during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Kenyatta continued to promote acquiring skills training for jobs in Kenya that would allow for economic, social, and structural development. By the 1970’s India became a popular destination for education abroad for students without government funding. The second wave can be identified by the decline in emigration due to the actions of the second president, Daniel Arap Moi. He was unable to maintain the same standards of education since he did not invest enough money into international education. At the same time the Kenyan economy began to decline and immigration restrictions in developed countries became stricter. By the late 1980’s migration became very one sided with many Kenyans emigrating to escape political, economic, and ethnic unrest. The third wave of immigration came during the 1990’s and 2000’s. During this time Kenyans were mostly moving within Africa to the Southern and Western regions as well as to the Middle East. Kenyans of all skill levels were emigrating to countries that offered them better opportunities, largely due to political, economic, environmental, and social factors. Present day is labeled as the fourth wave and continues similar trends of the recent past. A significant number of professionals, specifically in the medical sector, are leaving Kenya today. Trained doctors are emigrating to the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. There has also been student emigration to these countries, but rather than returning to Kenya after completing their education, significant amounts end up claiming permanent residence due to various factors like job offers and marriage. Additionally, migration to the US has maintained consistent growth since the 90’s due to the diversity visa lottery.

There are several government ministries, departments, and agencies that conduct research and manage migration policy. The State Department of Immigration, Border Control, and Citizen Services is the agency responsible for Kenya’s overall migration policy. A government led interagency coordination platform called National Coordination Mechanism on Migration was recently created by the government to enhance vertical and horizontal policy coherence. Since its creation NCM has helped increase collaboration and information sharing on a national level. Additionally there are several international organizations like the International Labor Organization, International Organization for Migration, United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that work on migration issues in Kenya.

The total number of emigrants in 2020 was 535,348 people. Most emigrated to the Americas and Europe, with a smaller proportion moving to other countries in Africa, and an even smaller amount to the Gulf countries. 156,960 emigrated to the US, 139,352 emigrated to the UK, 34,241 emigrated to Uganda, 29, 241 emigrated to Canada, and 24,274 emigrated to Tanzania (Faria). Like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, over the last three decades Kenya has experienced mass emigration to the developed world. This is especially negative for Kenya’s development since the population leaving is mostly competent and highly skilled workers. This is a concept known as brain drain, where highly trained or qualified people from a less developed country emigrate to developed countries where they believe the returns of their human capital is appreciated. There are both push and pull factors when it comes to the causes of brain drain. Push factors, which are the negative factors that cause people to want to leave, are political turmoil, economic uncertainty, poverty, underdevelopment, lack of research facilities, and an absence of conducive working environments. While pull factors are the positive aspects of developed countries that workers are unable to receive in their home countries. These include better quality of life, higher pay, conducive political atmosphere, modernized educational system with quality training, and intellectual freedom. It is extremely unfortunate that African trained human capital is leaving the continent since that is where they are needed the most. This is very evident when looking at the education rates of the Kenyan diaspora abroad. 30.8% of Kenyan residents in the UK have bachelors degrees, 33.4% have masters qualifications or higher, and 15% have technical qualifications. As previously mentioned, Kenya is currently struggling with a mass exodus of healthcare workers. This has left Kenya unable to provide adequate healthcare services to its population. A 2006 study revealed that there are only 600 doctors in Kenya, while 6,000 trained doctors have emigrated to countries like the US, Canada, UK, and Australia (Oucho et al.). These developed nations further benefit as they get to reap the benefits of filling their labor shortages without having to deal with the cost of educating them.

Although there are clear negative effects of brain drain, there are also some possible positive effects as well. Reverse brain drain can occur in the form of return migration, diaspora participation, or remittances which both stimulate development. Return migration usually involves educated, skilled migrants coming back to their homeland for a variety of reasons such as visa expiration or a desire to make a difference in their home country. A study conducted on the Kenyan diaspora in the US, UK, Canada, and Ghana indicated that 89% of respondents intended to return to Kenya (IOM). It is promising to see that such a significant proportion of the Kenyan diaspora has an intention to return because they would likely come back with savings and an education, and be able to contribute to Kenya’s development. Nevertheless the diaspora can still reverse brain drain through nation building efforts from abroad. By recognizing the untapped potential of the Kenyan diaspora the country can facilitate their integration into the national development agenda and harness the diverse skills, knowledge, expertise, and resources that they possess. Another way the diaspora contributes to Kenya’s development is through remittances. Because the inflow of remittances is so large, they are now recognized as an important contributor to Kenya’s growth and development. Over the last 20 years there has been a solid upward trend in the amount of remittances coming into Kenya. According to the official numbers collected by the Central Bank of Kenya in 2021 approximately $3.7 billion was sent in diaspora remittances. Approximately 60% of remittances come from the US, 15% from Europe, and the remaining comes from the rest of the world (CBK). It makes sense that most remittances come from the US given they have the most Kenyan immigrants, however the proportion of remittances coming from Europe is not the same. This data could lead one to assume that more of the Kenyan diaspora in the US have closer ties to their family in Kenya than in the UK. It is no surprise that foreign aid to Africa throughout the last century has not actually contributed to development in any meaningful way. This is due to a variety of reasons, some of which being corruption and mismanagement of funds. Remittances offer opportunities for development in a different way than how foreign aid functions. Rather than being given to the government and headily reaching the pockets of the actual Kenyan population, remittances come from family members and go directly into the pockets of citizens who need money and spend it on daily necessities.

One cannot have a complete understanding of Kenya’s migration without looking at internal migration, or migration within the country, as there is more internal migration than international migration. The general pattern of migration from pre to post independence has been rural to urban. People move to urban centers like Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, and Nakuru for jobs, education, and health services (Migrants & Refugees). Human mobility has contributed greatly to the expansion of urban settlements. Growth of urban centers accelerated immediately after independence because there were no legal and administrative restrictions for Africans who wished to migrate. High urban growth rates can be seen specifically in the years 1969 and 1979. Forced migration typically results in internally displaced persons as they do not leave the continent, but simply migrate to other parts of the country. This is often due to political or resource conflict, natural disasters, or human rights violations. While Kenya has governmental organizations meant to help refugees and displaced persons there are still many who do not receive the aid they so desperately require.

By observing historical trends and drivers of migration in Kenya it is clear that there is enormous potential for migration to be utilized for development, rather than against. There is clearly a link between migration and development, with the two sometimes working in unison and sometimes conflicting; having a thorough understanding of all of the working parts of the relationship would ensure that policy won’t have an effect that was not intended. Observing the differences in the regions people emigrate to and the reasons why can uncover more about the needs of Kenyan citizens.

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“Overview.” World Bank, 27 Sept. 2021,

“Return Migration – a Regional Perspective.” Mixed Migration Centre, 11 Aug. 2018,


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