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Secure Borders Before Making Them Seamless

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Tanzania’s reluctance to adopt a joint tourism visa arrangement with its East African neighbors offers an opportunity for the scheme’s proponents to rethink underlying challenges of security and illegal immigrants.

Since 2014, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have implemented a joint $100 tourist visa. Tanzania, though, instead demands its own $150 visa fee for visitors entering its borders.

Having a joint visa arrangement is a no-brainer for the East African Community (EAC) bloc that is trying to increase earnings from visitor bookings and attract foreign investment into its budding tourism industry. A seamless visa boosts the attractiveness of a bloc because visitors are spared the hustle of having to make multiple arrangements to enter each of the partner states.

Dar es Salaam however maintains that there are always two sides of a coin and will not jump onto the bandwagon until it conclusively assesses the impact of the scheme.

Because of this, there is bad blood between the EAC partners and Dar es Salaam. Tanzania’s neighbors see it as standing in the way of a potential game-changing concept.

Kenya’s Tourism minister Najib Balala recently kicked up a fresh storm when he claimed that Tanzania had pulled out of the joint EAC single tourist visa pact because it was dissatisfied with the manner in which it was ratified. Tanzania denies this and maintains it has never been part of the deal and would only join if there was deeper consensus on security and revenue sharing formulas.

Dar es Salaam’s concerns, especially that of security, must be taken seriously by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, rather than just focusing on tourism and investment.

It’s not new for some members of economic blocs to reject seamless travel arrangements with other partners. The UK and the Republic of Ireland opted out of the EU’s Schengen visa scheme over concerns on the security risks of seamless travel by visitors to member states. The UK opted to maintain its own borders, and Ireland preserved its free movement arrangement with the UK rather than join Schengen.

This issue has recently featured in key debates in the wake of terror attacks in France and Belgium, with some analysts linking the attacks to the lax border scrutiny that comes with the seamless border arrangement.

Similar challenges are present in East Africa where Islamist militants continue to pose a threat from their hideouts in the lawless parts of Somalia. Kenya and Uganda have borne the brunt of the militant groups, such as al-Shabaab, and the question of border security and immigration should be an obvious concern.

Kenya has also become a major transit route for illegal immigrants heading south in search of jobs, thanks to a raft of poorly implemented regional agreements that allow for the free movement of people.

For example, although Ethiopia isn’t a member of the EAC, its citizens are allowed visa-free travel to neighboring Kenya. This scenario has inadvertently seen Kenya become a transit route for illegal immigrants from Ethiopia looking for jobs as far as South Africa. Hundreds of Ethiopians and Eritreans have been arrested on Kenyan soil for being in the country illegally as they try finding their way to southern Africa.

This poses a serious security risk because militants can sneak into Kenya and onward to other countries in the region. The illegal immigrations also pose a challenge to the targeted countries because of the disruptions caused to their economies, exacerbating the scramble for jobs and housing and other basic amenities.

Countries targeted by the illegal immigrants that pass through Kenya, such as South Africa and Zambia, have witnessed xenophobic attacks due to pressure caused on resources by the uninvited guests.

The EAC partners need to then find workable solutions to keep out any cross-border security threats and illegal immigrants, even as they pursue a dream of a common tourism industry which has its obvious benefits.

On a visit to Kenya in mid-October, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma raised this issue with immigration controls in Kenya and said they posed challenges.

“We have to ensure that there are no loopholes for criminals to take advantage of,” he said in response to a request by his host President Uhuru Kenyatta to review visa conditions for Kenyans.

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