When John Muriuki needs to buy milk and bread, he sneaks out of his single bedroom flat in London to the nearest shop furtively looking behind his shoulder to see if he is being followed by police officers.
John, 29, has overstayed his student visa since 2007 and spends his time cooped up in his flat with a borrowed laptop from a fellow Kenyan for company. That is his only connection with the outside world.
“I feel very depressed many times,” he says, “but I do not want to return to Kenya because of the shame I will bring to my parents and humiliation from my neighbours.”
When he first arrived in London for studies, he saw promise and visions of a new life abroad. “My father sweated to pay for my studies. I want to care for him in his old age but my immigration problems have shattered my dreams.
“It is difficult to live on little money in London. This is an expensive city. Thankfully, Kenyans are a close-knit community and they try to help each other.
One mwananchi I met at the church got me a regular three-day job of stuffing letters in envelopes for small companies. They pay me five pence per envelope and I earn £250 a week.”
On other days, he does odd jobs like gardening for people he knows from the church which brings him another £150. He saves and sends some money “to my father giving the impression that I am doing well here.”
Though this income keeps him going, he has a constant fear of that knock on the door from immigration officers. He accepts that his life is a mess even though he has a honours degree, considering that there are no prospects of a job without permission to live here legally.
Rachel Kimani came to the UK in 1997 and converted her tourist visa to a student one.
“I studied with money sent from home. I graduated and approached a lawyer to change my status but he disappeared forcing me to go underground,” sha says. “Life was very tough. I could not walk down the street because I feared being stopped by the authorities.”
She lived with friends in a small house where there were both legal and illegal immigrants.
British-Kenyan Human Rights lawyer Tito Mbariti, who works with the Leicester-based Johl and Company, is aware of the plight of wananchi living precariously on borrowed time.
Many Kenyans have turned to him for help with immigration matters.
More than 2,000 Kenyans are living illegally here and though some living here illegally have genuinely been victims of repression in Kenya, others have faked claims of being targets to cheat the Home Office.
“Those living here illegally are stuck. Most cannot return home because their families sold everything or used fundraisers.
Those in the UK are their only source of income,” Mbariti said.
They cannot work legally and earn more money. Most barely survive here. They cannot return home because they will not know where to start from.
They go underground in the hope of being granted permanent settlement.
“The undocumented Kenyans also have a lot of pressure from home as they support relatives. When they receive money from the UK and convert it they think there is a lot of money in this country. Little do they realise they are only on a minimum wage here but their demands for money increase,” said Mbariti.
Most Kenyans come on visit visas as part of the church, to study or to meet relatives. Many return home while others go underground. Those without friends depend on the churches and soup-kitchens for hand-outs and meals. Illegals lead a hard life — unable to obtain welfare services — free medical care and social security pay outs, they end up in the hands of shady employers who offer tough labour jobs for slave wages.
They receive £20 daily working 14-hour shifts instead of statutory minimum £91 for the same hours.
Most Kenyans are exploited in the construction industry, farms or security firms; plumbers and those who perform odd jobs get a pittances.
The government has tightened laws on free medical treatment . Though anyone can seek hospital medical treatment but those who cannot prove their residency have to pay.
Most illegals avoid going to hospital for minor ailments for the fear of being found except in dire emergencies.
An organisation that looked after their welfare closed down but there are plans to see if churches can provide a similar service.
Mbariti urged the formation of an umbrella organisation to provide important immigration information which at present is sparsely given by underfunded small diaspora groups.
Kenyans, like other illegal foreigners, have used ingenious ways to enter Britain.
Some took the circuitous route in Europe through Calais, France and hiding in container trucks or car boots.
It involved travelling through hazardous routes by road or boat because of the heavy risks involved.
Instead, they obtain a Schengen visa say, for France, but go on the run after disembarking in London while in transit.
They find wananchi through the Church who support them.
They even sleep on the floor as long as there is a roof over their heads.
Some use marriages to the English to obtain residency rights.
Some liaisons fail and the British partners demand their removal from Britain.
Portas Ongondo, 55, father three sons and a caretaker at the Lady Elizabeth Hastings School in Collingham, Leeds who married a Briton, was sent to Kenya in October after he broke up with his wife.
The locals have joined hands to demand his return to Britain but all the legal avenues to save him from expulsion have been exhausted.
Portas is in Nairobi hoping that he will manage to re-join his sons while back in Britain, campaign is underway to fight for his return.
Those living illegally often mingle with Kenyans in similar position instead of approaching Britons who could report them to the authorities.
Mbariti advises Kenyans not to go to UK for settlement without proper papers as the laws are getting tough and “all those panya routes have been closed. “They can come here as students but should return to Kenya at the end of their studies,” he said.
The UK is currently not an attractive destination because of high living costs. Some Kenyans live rough on the street.
“My worst fear was not being arrested and sent back home but being held in detention for many months,” Rachel said.
She advises Kenyans to come to UK as students but not to take the risk of thinking they will convert their short-term visa to a permanent stay.
“Otherwise please stay back at home because Britain is not a bed of roses,” she warned.