Kenya has been sucked into a tussle for airspace management between Somalia and a UN agency after it turned out that staff working there have no requisite papers.
The claims emerged early this month when Somalia demanded the closure of a centre operated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Nairobi, which was launched under a special deal between the agency and Mogadishu.
Somalia argues that though the centre was sanctioned by its government, ICAO breached the arrangement by employing 47 Somalis who entered Kenya on student passes, hence cannot be given employment contracts.
“For the last 20 years, ICAO has been managing Somali airspace out of a small office in Gigiri. During those years, it has been exploiting Somali employees by bringing them to Kenya under student visas, which is illegal under Kenyan law,” Mr Gamal Hassan, Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya told the Daily Nation.
“We want this office closed and Somalis brought to Kenya illegally to return to their country.”
Somalia has protested the inability by its citizens to get leave or take their families to Nairobi.
Because they have worked in Nairobi using student visas since the 1990s, their bubble could burst if they attempted to leave the country and return.
It also raises the question of how foreigners can work in Kenya illegally for more than 20 years.
The Department of Immigration is charged with issuing work permits to foreigners, including those working for international organisations.
On Sunday, Immigration boss Gordon Kihalangwa told the Nation that his office had been approached by ICAO to issue student visas to nine Somali staff at the centre to train in aeronautical engineering.
“These people are technically working but as with the norm with international organisations, we have given them some exemptions because they are on internship,” said Mr Kihalangwa.
“They are in the country legally and we have received assurances that they will leave on completion of their internship.”
He added that the nine renewed their passes on January 29.
International organisations hiring foreign staff are supposed to declare them to authorities.
Somalia says ICAO has not been submitting full details to the Kenyan government and charges that some officials were given wrong passes.
“Ultimately, this is a sovereignty issue and ICAO has failed to honour its commitment to eventually allow Somalia to take control of its airspace,” added Mr Hassan, accusing the agency of not remitting funds it collected from commercial jetliners.
Known as the Flight Information Service of Somalia, the centre manages the Somali airspace in an agreement that has been extended three times since 1994.
ICAO said the Nairobi centre was hosting 47 Somali staff with an understanding with the Kenyan government that they will be moved to Somalia.
“The arrangement for the Somali personnel to stay in Nairobi serving the project has been established by the Kenyan Government in order to allow them to work in the FISS while they wait for the transfer of the services to Mogadishu,” said Anthony Philbin, the Chief of Communications in the office of the Secretary General of ICAO.