A growing number of Kenyans are losing hundreds of thousands of shillings to con men offering them non-existent jobs in China.
Kenyan businessmen in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, who spoke to Lifestyle, described the racket as human trafficking on massive scale.
Kenyan ambassador to Beijing Michael Kinyanjui said the government was aware of the problem, and would bring the agents to book apart from intervening on behalf of victims who end up on the wrong side of Chinese immigrations and security officials.
Lifestyle interviewed a cross section of Kenyan residents, business and community leaders in Guangzhou, as well as victims of the trafficking, most of whom chose to remain anonymous because of their illegal status.
The separate interviews provided largely matching accounts that allowed this writer to piece together the typical journey of an ambitious but desperate young Kenyan who begs and borrows to try and make his fortune in the “new El Dorado”, but ends up stranded penniless, an illegal immigrant, hungry, homeless and at the mercy of ruthless agents in the mean streets of a foreign city.
The victims are enticed through classified advertisements in the newspapers, and flyers at locations in Nairobi, Ngong Town, Rongai, Kitengela and other towns in Kajiado adjacent to the capital city.
Nearby central Kenya towns such as Thika, Kiambu, Ruiru and Juja also provide a catchment area that stretches to the rest of the Mt Kenya including Nyeri, Embu and Meru.
NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS
The jobs on offer are usually for English language teachers, a lucrative option in China where demand is high. The recruits provide their education certificates to the agents in Kenya, but even where lacking, the recruiters will readily help provide fake ones.
Once the recruit pays a downpayment, the agent organises for a visa and plane ticket, and on payment of the balance the eager young victim is boarding a plane to China, hoping to strike a fortune.
On landing, the recruit is directed to a Kenyan — and in some cases a West African — who is supposed to be the link to a Chinese agent to purportedly fix the actual job appointment.
Most victims describe being taken to a house in Shenzhen, a city one hour by train from Guangzhou and gateway to Hong Kong. The house is run by two Kenyan women, only identified as Florence and Flora, who use it is a reception centre for the victims. That is where they are accommodated and given some orientation before being handed over to Chinese recruitment agents.
First comes the shock that there is no job immediately available, and the realisation that a one-month business visitor visa does not allow one to take up employment, and in any case will soon expire.
They also discover at that point that while there are indeed thousands of jobs for English language teachers at all levels from kindergarten to university, Chinese immigration law provides that such jobs can only be offered to persons from “native English-speaking countries”. That is mostly the UK and it’s former “white” colonies, and the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The only African country on the list is South Africa, courtesy of its relatively recent history as a white outpost on the continent.
No problem, says the agent. The recruit is told that the education certificates are of no use because a brand new set will be provided identifying him or her as an American, with requisite diplomas from US schools.
The recruit is then taken through a fortnight of drilling that includes not just learning the basics of teaching English, but also sounding like an African American.
If lucky at the end of the drill a job might indeed be available, usually in some rural outpost, but at a fraction of the salary promised. The recruit will not be a direct employee of the school, but will be paid through the Chinese placement agent who will take the bulk of the pay and pass on only a pittance.
At that point the “lucky” Kenyan cannot dare complain too loudly as he is aware the visa status does not allow employment and there is the risk of arrest.
Meanwhile, many of the victims are forced to constantly play a cat-and-mouse game with the police and immigration officials.
Just a month after landing, the Chinese visa expires, often before a job and means of livelihood have been secured.
Those who quit in frustration and decide they want to go back home find out to their shock that they have no air ticket. They had paid the agent enough for a return ticket, and the travel agent booking presented to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi indicated a return journey as required.
However, that was only for the visa application, because what is eventually issued is a one-way ticket.
Only a few have the resources to fly back home, and it is usually too embarrassing after having got family and friends to finance their journey. Some take the option of crossing over to Hong Kong, a self-governing city-state and former British colony that does not require visas from Commonwealth citizens, including Kenyans.
From Hong Kong, they hand over their passports to the agents, who for a fee will send the documents by courier to another agent in Nairobi who will take it to the Chinese embassy for visa renewal.
There are cases where a spouse or a recognised representative can deliver the document, but the agents who do not want to involve family members of the victims, and expose their scams as well as lose their cut of the fee, prefer another unscrupulous method: they scout around for a lookalike of the victim, who will then go to the visa office posing as the applicant.
The whole process might take a couple of weeks. In the meantime, the victims must survive in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world. They are usually sent to yet another infamous processing centre located at Chunking Mansion on Nathan Road, in Hong Kong’s Kowloon area. On the 16th Floor of Block “D” they find some sort of cramped dormitories next to a restaurant run by a Tanzanian woman nicknamed “Mama Dollar”.
For HK$ 50 (about Sh660) per day, they will get room and board, usually a double-bunk in a crowded, vermin infested dormitory teeming with travellers from Africa, Asia and eastern Europe.
That is not small money for penniless, desperate Kenyans. Some might earn their keep by working at Mama Dollar’s.
Others will pool their money together and jointly pay for a bed or even a room, sometimes sleeping in shifts. The less fortunate will sleep even rougher in the streets and parks, where they will be under the constant threat of arrest.
So great had been the flow of Kenyans into Hong Kong under such circumstances that the government of the wealthy island has started restricting the entry of Kenyans. Though visa conditions have not been introduced, young men and women making the crossing from China and cannot offer cogent explanations for their visit are often turned back.
The other destination for the quick exit and re-entry is another self-governing outpost, Macao, but one denied entry by Hong Kong will also often be turned away by the sister-state. So those with the money take a flight to the Philippines, but the majority simply can’t afford it so they lie low illegally under constant risk of arrest. Victims caught in the vicious cycle become easy prey for further exploitation by the unscrupulous agents.
Mr Robert Mutonga told the Lifestyle how the Kenyan community in Guangzhou and other towns in southern China has through WhatsApp appeals raised money to help out colleagues in such difficulties.
However, the flood is overwhelming and there is bound to be fatigue for harambees to bail out those arrested, pay their fines and buy air tickets home.
The solution, he says, is for government intervention. He proposes that the Kenya government persuade the Chinese hosts to offer an amnesty for illegals residents willing to resurface so they can at least be helped to leave the country.
Mr Mohammed Ismail suggests that since China has thousands of jobs available for English language teachers, the Kenyan government should negotiate a formal agreement.
“To tame the tide of human trafficking, the Kenya government should enter into a bilateral agreement with China to provide trained teachers of English language”, he says, adding that this will remove crooked agents from the equation.