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Kenyans Brave Dangerous Journeys in Hopes of Slipping into Europe

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Kenyan women wait for a bus in Kypseli, a neighborhood in Athens, Greece. Many migrants save money for years to pay smugglers who arrange their routes to Europe. Image by Wairimu Michengi. Greece, 2015.

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A view of Athens, the capital of Greece. Greece is a major entry point to Europe for Kenyan migrants. There are about 1,000 Kenyans in the country, according to the Kenyan consulate in Athens. Image by Wairimu Michengi. Greece, 2015.

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Cathy, a Kenyan migrant who asked that a short version of her name be used to protect her identity, at an Athens flea market. Cathy works as a nanny and housekeeper for affluent families. Image by Wairimu Michengi. Greece, 2015.

ATHENS—On a Sunday afternoon, eight Kenyan women chat in a small apartment. Bongo flava, the Tanzanian hip-hop music popular among Kenyans, blares from two column speakers in the room.

The women are in Kypseli, a neighborhood north of Athens city center marked by closely spaced old apartment blocks. Its narrow streets are overtaken by cars. Some walls are sprayed with graffiti. About 15 percent of the apartments in the neighborhood are vacant, and another 15 percent are occupied by migrants.

But for these women, the neighborhood represents their success. Their gathering is their monthly chama, or merry-go-round meeting, in which they each contribute 200 euros ($216) and one of them takes home the total. This is a common money-saving practice among Kenyan women. Most of them send the money back to Kenya to pay for their children’s school fees and other needs.

These women feel privileged. They work as domestic staff in affluent Athens suburbs, earning between 600 and 1,000 euros ($648 to $1,080) per month. In Kenya, the monthly salary for housemaids and children’s nannies ranges from 5,844 shillings to 10,954 shillings ($57 to $107), depending on location. And even by the standards of Greece, where the monthly minimum wage is about $684, the women are doing OK.

But getting here wasn’t easy. Two of the women flew in on tourist visas, then hid their passports to register as refugees, but the rest used dangerous back routes.

Muthoni, who asked that just her middle name be used to protect her identity, left Kenya six years ago, when she was six months pregnant. She’d been deported from Israel eight months earlier, she says, and she had yet to find a job in Kenya. Just after breaking up with her boyfriend, she discovered she was pregnant.

She already had a daughter who was 6 years old and was being cared for by Muthoni’s mother.

“I felt that by having a second baby out of wedlock, I was exposing my family, especially my mother, to ridicule,” she says. “I wanted to disappear from their lives and have my baby in a faraway country.”

With help from a relative who was a travel agent and human smuggler, and using the savings she’d collected while in Israel, Muthoni traveled to Turkey on a business visa. Once there, her relative connected her to a smuggler in Turkey who promised to organize her transportation to Greece.

“This was the only easy part of the journey, because I traveled by air,” Muthoni says.

In Turkey, Muthoni paid the second smuggler 170,000 shillings ($1,661) for transportation to Greece.

The first leg of that journey was by a cargo van that didn’t have any rear windows. Twenty-three migrants, including four Kenyans, were squeezed together. The van dropped them in Izmir, a port city in Turkey, and the group waited for nightfall before setting out on the 85-kilometer (53-mile) walk to the crossing point.

The crossing point was at Cesme, a coastal town that sits opposite the Greek island of Chios, the migrants’ destination. They walked at night, and hid in shrubs and caves during the day.

“I didn’t tell anyone that I was pregnant, and it didn’t show that much because I’m naturally big,” she says.

Pressure on her pelvis threatened to slow Muthoni down, but she had no choice.

“I had to keep up with the rest,” she says.

On the group’s second night, Turkish police officers saw them and opened fire, scattering them. Muthoni took cover under a shrub, and stayed there until morning. Once there was daylight, Muthoni called out for another Kenyan in the group.

“He answered from the top of a tree, and when I looked up, I saw about six other migrants hiding with him,” she says.

They found a man grazing his goats, and spent the day in his home, she says.

A 2014 report by Amnesty International says that at least 17 people were killed by Turkish border guards’ gunfire between December 2013 and August 2014 near the Turkey-Syria border. In some cases, the report states, there was no warning before guards opened fire.

Muthoni’s group reached the crossing point on the third night. That’s when the worst part of the journey began, she says.

Two smugglers, who had been with the group since Izmir, inflated a rubber boat they had been carrying and asked the migrants to decide who among them would operate the boat.

“We stared at them in shock,” Muthoni says. “All this time, we thought that they would accompany us all the way to Greece. We were now on our own.”

One man from South Sudan volunteered to drive the motorized raft, she says. The smugglers spent about five minutes showing him how to operate it, then they left.

The group boarded the boat and set off toward Greece, but Turkish guards spotted them when they were just a short distance from the Turkish coastline. The guards escorted them back to the shore and told them to disappear, Muthoni says, but they didn’t destroy the boat. The group set out again about three hours later, but once again they were turned back, this time by the Greek coast guard, Muthoni says.

The migrants slept through the next day, hidden in bushes. That night, they crossed over into Greece.

A journey that is estimated by one travel website, Chios Guide, to take about 45 minutes by boat took hours for Muthoni’s group. They relied only on the flickering lights in Chios as a guide.

“Daylight found us in the sea, and the sight of the massive sea made us panic,” she says. “I think smugglers tell people to ride the boats at night because then you can’t see anything and so you have no fear. We were afraid that we’d gotten lost in the sea and the boat would soon run out of fuel. Women started crying.”

The boat reached the shore, and someone immediately poked a hole in it with a stick. The smugglers had instructed them to destroy it soon after they landed, because if the guards found them with the boat intact, they could force them back aboard, tie the boat to their vessel and take them back to Turkey.

“We were not even sure that we had arrived in Greece,” Muthoni says. “We thought that maybe we had landed on a Turkish island. We only believed that we were in Greece when we found an old cement bag with Greek writings on it.”

Smugglers had instructed the migrants to give themselves up to the police as soon as they landed in Greece, on the expectation that authorities would respect Geneva Convention guidelines forbidding deportation to a war zone.

“They told us we would not be deported as long as we said we were from Somalia or any other war-torn country,” Muthoni says.

Tired and worn out, the migrants wished for their own arrests. And Muthoni had other worries: She hadn’t felt her baby kick in at least 12 hours.

“I was worried that she had died,” she says. “I prayed that we got arrested soon so that I could get medical help.”

The group found a home on the island and asked people there to call the police.

Muthoni was taken to a hospital as soon as police arrived. The baby was OK. Muthoni registered as a Somali asylum seeker and was admitted into a shelter in Thessaloniki, the only one with space available, she says.

The rest of the migrants told Muthoni they were held for about two weeks, then released to live in Greece after being fingerprinted and undergoing medical screenings.

There are about 3 million Kenyans in the diaspora. Some have traveled legally, but many others have moved via perilous illegal routes, often putting their lives in danger. Some spend months or years in transit before they arrive at their final destinations.

For many Kenyans, the ultimate destination is the U.K. or Germany, but now they’re increasingly settling in Greece, which for years, migrants say, was considered just a transit point.

Kenya isn’t a country in conflict, nor is it among the most impoverished in Africa. On the contrary, the World Bank recently bumped its status from the low-income bracket to the lower-middle-income bracket.

But the money that the shift represents is slow to trickle down to most Kenyans. Unemployment numbers vary, but one 2014 report published by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa cited a 67 percent jobless rate for Kenyans ages 15 to 34. That group makes up 35 percent of Kenya’s population, the report states.

And while Kenya is now considered a middle-income country by the World Bank, its gross national income per capita is $1,290, which just surpasses the mark for the lower-middle-income bracket. Countries in that bracket have per capita incomes ranging from $1,046 to $4,125.

Even as more money flows into Kenya’s wealthier sectors, life remains difficult for many people. About 43 percent of all Kenyans live below the poverty line of $1.25 per day, according to UNICEF.

Kenyans have been traveling undercover to Europe for decades, experts say, but now they’re part of a massive wave of people scrambling to get into the continent. Civil war in Syria and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have sent waves of people to join impoverished migrants desperate to leave Africa’s poorest regions. Nearly half a million people arrived in European Mediterranean countries in the first nine months of 2015, the Migration Policy Institute says. More than half of those people were from Syria, and others came from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Nigeria and several other West African nations.

That influx has created a new sense of urgency for European nations that have long grappled with what to do with people who enter the continent illegally.

The primary entry points are Italy, Greece and Malta, says T. Craig Murphy, the regional project coordinator for the Horn of Africa at the International Organization for Migration.

Greece is one such staging ground for Kenyans who hope to move on to richer nations, including the U.K., Germany and Sweden. There are about 1,000 Kenyans in Greece, according to the Kenyan Consulate in Athens.

Karibu Association, an organization in Madrid that assists migrants from Africa, has Kenyans in its network, but they make up a small fraction of its 46,510 members, says Ana García Martín, the program coordinator at the organization.

There are fewer Kenyans in the stream of illegal migration than there are people from other East African countries, such as Somalia and Eritrea, Murphy says.

“They are either looking for better employment opportunities, or using one country as a staging ground for onward transportation to another,” Murphy says. “Some go for education and family reunification.”

For many Kenyans, Europe, while offering the lure of money, is even more so a chance to redeem themselves. Like Muthoni, the desperation that drives them north sometimes has more to do with proving themselves — to their parents, their children and their village — to be success stories.

Desperate to Leave

Sam was an electrician in King’eero, a semi-urban community about 17 kilometers (10.6 miles) outside Nairobi. The mix of modern apartment buildings, plots of corn and napier grass and homes built with salvaged metal sheets show how the once-rural area is growing.

But despite the changes, work was so rare that Sam could barely afford to provide for his family of five. He met an agent in Nairobi in 2009 who claimed to help people migrate to Europe for 80,000 shillings ($782). Sam sold some of his property to raise the money, but the agent disappeared with the cash as soon as Sam handed it over.

Sam, who asked that his nickname be used to protect his identity, says he lost hope. He started drinking heavily and smoking marijuana. His mother saw her son’s desperation and sought the help of another smuggler. That one took 120,000 shillings ($1,173) and disappeared, Sam says.

“This one was so cunning; he had told me to pack my bags and wait for his calls,” Sam says. “Then he called and said my flight had been canceled till the next day. The following day, he called and said I would have to take my flight from Kampala, Uganda. Then he switched off his phone, and I never heard from him again.”

Sam says he tried two more times to work with smugglers to leave Kenya, without paying up front. But nothing panned out.

“I had been conned four times by smugglers by the time I left Kenya,” Sam says. “They would take money from me or my mother or my sister, promising to fly me to Spain, then they would disappear. I got to a point where I wanted to hunt down the con men and kill them one by one.”

Eventually, in 2010, Sam found a smuggler who helped him obtain a Turkish visa with forged documents. He flew to Turkey, where he stayed for a month. Then, like Muthoni, Sam walked from Izmir to Cesme. Smugglers taught two men in the group how to operate a boat, and then the 17 people headed toward Chios. The trip took about 30 minutes, Sam says.

“The group that came after us was not as lucky,” he says. “Their boat capsized, and they all drowned. Police came to ask us whether we knew them.”

Sam says he didn’t know anyone in that boat.

Sam and the others gave themselves up to the police and were detained for two weeks. Sam registered as a Somali so he could be taken in as a refugee, and, after a medical screening, he received a pink card, which identifies him as an asylum seeker who can stay in the country.

Police loaded the group into a van, and everyone was dropped off at the port of Chios, where they took a ferry to Athens. There, Sam worked as a dishwasher for three years while he plotted his next move. His plan was to move to Spain, and then to the U.K.

“For four times, I tried to take a flight to Spain with fake documents,” Sam says. “Police would confiscate the documents, detain me for three days, then set me free.”

In 2013, on his fifth try, he says he went through Belgium. The attempt was successful. From there, Sam took a train to France, then a bus to Spain. He paid 2,000 euros ($2,168) to a smuggler who obtained a valid residency card for him, which he will eventually need to renew.

Sam’s family members in Kenya say they didn’t know how dangerous his journey would be. His mother, who still lives in King’eero village, says that for Sam, staying in Kenya wasn’t an option.

“He was so bitter, I was afraid that he could do something nasty if he stayed,” she says. “But if I understood the kind of danger he was putting himself into traveling to Europe via a boat, I would not have allowed him to go.”

The Business of Smuggling

Smugglers in Kenya charge between 400,000 shillings ($3,912) and 500,000 shillings ($4,891) to organize these trips, according to migrants in Europe and people in Kenya who have sought their services. Some Kenyans work for years to save the money.

Cathy, a mother of two, says she did odd jobs — washing clothes by hand and mopping floors — for three years to pay her smuggler.

“I would give him the money little by little until I got half the amount,” she says. “Then I took a bank loan to cover the balance.”

Cathy asked that a version of her first name be used to protect her identity.

She was then living with her husband and children in King’eero. Her husband, a public transport van driver, was an alcoholic who spent all his money on drink. Cathy wanted to escape the misery, she says.

A smuggler in Kenya got tourist visas for her and five other women.

“The trip was OK, since we came via Italy by air, but he dumped us in Thessaloniki,” Cathy says, referring to the smuggler.

In Thessaloniki, she says, she went for a year without a job.

Cathy and the rest of the women stayed in a refugee camp in Thessaloniki until a contact in Athens advised them to move to that city.

She now has official refugee travel documents.

“To get the passport, I had to lie that my life was at risk back home,” she says. “If I want to go home, it means that the issue that made me flee the country is no longer there, and so my refugee status can be withdrawn.”

Cathy began paying back her bank loan in 2014.

Greece is usually a country of transit for Kenyan migrants, but many of them are choosing to live there, because it is easier to find work, says Anne, a smuggler who has moved many Kenyans from Greece to other countries in the EU. Anne asked that a version of her first name be used to protect her identity. (See our story about Anne here)

Spain was once a desired destination for migrants, because it grants legal residency if someone can prove that he or she has lived in the country for at least three years, she says. But migrants who lack proper paperwork struggle to find work in Spain.

“How can one survive in Spain for a whole three years without work?” says Njeri, a Kenyan migrant in Greece. “I would rather live without papers in Greece forever because I can still find work.”

The Human Cost

For some, the search for a better life ends in death.

Jane Njoki Kabue, a Kenyan, didn’t survive her journey. Her husband, John Nyaga Kabue, also a Kenyan, says she was on a boat that sank in August 2010, during a journey across the approximately kilometer-wide Evros River separating Greece and Turkey. Migrants consider the route one of the safest ones into the European Union, but the crossing can be dangerous at night.

John Nyaga Kabue moved to Greece in 2008. His wife planned to join him there. But instead of enjoying a reunion, Kabue searched for her for a year before he found her body in a mass grave in Sidiro, a village in northeastern Greece.

In a speech he gave in 2011 when he visited the Evros River, Kabue said DNA testing confirmed that the body found was his wife’s.

Around the time Njoki traveled, 16 migrants, mostly Somalis, drowned trying to cross the river. It’s not clear whether she was on that boat.

The Evros River route was, at one time, a popular entry point into Greece. Grace, a Kenyan who arrived in Greece in 2011 when she was still a teenager, says that boat ride took just a few minutes. Her elder sister, Njeri, had come to Greece a year earlier by sea, but later heard from friends about the Evros River option. Both women asked that their full names not be used to protect their identities.

In October 2010 the UNHCR, quoting Greek sources, said several hundred people crossed the Greece-Turkey land border each day. At that point in the year the agency had recorded 44 people drowning while trying to cross the Evros River in 2010, but they thought the number was higher. It’s not clear how many people entered Europe via the river crossing. News reports have quoted Greek villagers who claimed that there were mass graves in the area containing the bodies of migrants who died trying to cross the river.

In 2012, the Greek government erected a barbwire fence along a stretch of land border to block migrants.

Kabue wanted to exhume his wife’s body to bury her in Kenya but couldn’t afford it.

“Jane was coming to look for a job, just like other Kenyan women you find in Greece, but it was not to be,” Kabue says, fighting back tears.