When I first meet Kenneth Macharia in person we’ve been speaking on the phone or text for a week. I know what he looks like - his face is all over the internet - but he doesn't know which of the reporters standing outside the immigration removal centre I am.
It’s a wet and windy night in West London and despite the fact he’s been detained for nearly two weeks, when he’s released Ken has a huge smile on his face. He offers a small wave as his friends spot him and run towards him. After a tense afternoon in an immigration tribunal, Judge Woodcraft granted Ken bail. He’s been released. He is free for now.
Kenneth Macharia came to the UK from Kenya as a student nearly ten years ago. Applications for leave to remain were repeatedly put in and repeatedly granted. Then in 2016 Ken applied for asylum, on the grounds that as a gay man, it was not safe for him to return to Kenya where homosexual activity is illegal. But his asylum application is refused and for the next two years a back and forth process of appeals and denials unfolds. During this time he continues to live in Glastonbury and visit his mother regularly in Bristol, where he also plays for a LGBT rugby team, the Bristol Bisons.
That is until 15 November 2018, when Ken attends a local police station to report, essentially sign in to show he hasn’t run away, when immigration officers detain him “to enforce removal to Kenya”. Immediately his Bisons teammates begin a petition to have him freed and granted permanent residency. Fellow volunteers at a Bristol Refugee Welcome Centre in Bristol where Ken helps out, say they are inundated with calls, letters and messages on social media asking where he is and what’s happening to him. Local media pick up the story, national publications quickly follow suit. Soon, Kenneth Macharia is being talked and read about in the UK and abroad.
Five days after he is detained, Ken receives a glimmer of hope: the Home Office cancel their removal notice on him. A reprieve. A relief. A national ITV News correspondent and camera operator wait outside the immigration removal centre, expecting Ken to walk through the doors at any moment. They wait and wait, Ken doesn’t appear. As the days roll on and there is no sign of Ken’s release, his hope starts to fade. He’s given a date for an immigration bail hearing and then a devastating blow. The Home Office intend to oppose his bail and still want to deport him.
On the day of the bail hearing a carload of Bristol Bisons, including captain Murray Jones who has largely led the campaign to protect Ken, make their way to Feltham. I’m there along with ITN’s Paul Davies and several other journalists. It’s tense as we all wait with Ken’s mother (Ken came to the UK after the age of 18 on his own passport, so her residency status carries no weight with his application). Eventually we go in, passing Ken appearing via a videolink on a large TV. Legal discussion ensues between a Home Office representative, Ken’s barrister and Judge Woodcraft. No one in the room can call which way the Judge will go. Then, the two words Ken, his friends and family have been waiting for “bail granted”.
Ken is out of the removal centre, he’s done a live interview with me and heads home to the West Country. He can breathe, relieved, but only momentarily. He’s in the eye of the storm. The Home Office can take at least week to assess new evidence Ken has submitted to support his asylum claim. In 2016, the Judge at the time accepted that Ken is gay but in his 22-page conclusion determined that Ken would not face persecution if he returned to Kenya.
Under law in the African country, homosexual activity is punishable by 14 years in prison. The legislation dates back to the colonial-era but this year Kenya’s top court has considered evidence that supports legalising homosexuality. Ken says “mob rule or justice” still exists in Kenya though and therefore the threat of violence is still very real for him. The UK Foreign Officegives guidance online to LGBT travellers to Kenya, including the reminder that holding hands or kissing in public can result in arrest and imprisonment.
Ken has put it to the Home Office that his profile both in the UK and Kenya, where media outlets have also reported his story, means that his sexuality is no secret. His risk of persecution is heightened, he says, because it is now widely known that he is a gay man. Officials have at least a week to consider this new submission, which they should in detail Judge Woodcraft instructed. Once the Home Office makes its decision, it could mean permanent residency, or back to square one.
“He’s so kind”, “he’s warm and gentle”, “he’s been so missed”, these words ring out whenever I speak to Ken’s teammates or fellow volunteers. And now that I have interviewed him three times, once on the phone from the removal centre and twice on release, I know what they mean. Throughout the detention process, Ken has stayed calm and dignified. When I ask him what it was like in the removal centre he talks about his fears but swiftly moves on to say how the support from the outside kept him going. People can’t stop hugging him while we wait outside the Malcolm X Centre in Bristol to do an interview. He tells me how good it is to be back, helping others and feeling useful again. He can’t wait to return to training with the Bisons.
Ken has taken a risk, to give up his privacy and make his sexuality well known. He now hopes in turn, this will save him from a flight to Kenya. The next few weeks will see whether the risk has determined his future.