Financial exclusion, lack of identity documents: The nightmare of Kenyan refugees

Sunday June 30 2024

Young men practising plumbing in Don Bosco vocational training centre. PHOTO | POOL


Eraste Mwaka, 43, left his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) full of hope that he’d find a lasting, peaceful and better life in Nairobi, but reality tasted different when he set foot in Kenya.

By the time he decided to part ways with his old life in eastern DRC, where he had a stable, well-paying job with a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), he had had it all. The rebels in the region had made it their mission to make sure he had no peace in life, only because he refused to join them.

“They really terrorised me, consistently stealing from me the NGO’s property, which I had to pay for. They could even come to my house at night while I’m away, steal my things, rape my wife! I felt that was too much and finally decided to leave,” Mwaka recalls.

To him, Kenya was an ideal destination not only because it was far from the home that had become hell, but also because he believed it to be a great and welcoming country for refugees.

Like most first-time visitors to Kenya, he had been persuaded beyond doubt that Kenya is a safe and pleasant place to be in, thanks to the widely publicised song ‘Jambo Kenya,’ which culminates to the world-renowned phrase “Nchi yetu, hakuna matata”, Kiswahili for “there’s no trouble in our country.”

Read: IOM: Kenya hosts over 1m foreign migrants


His little grasp of the Swahili language led him to believe that a beautiful life awaited him and his family in Kenya. In 2014, he sold his property, liquidated his accounts, bought US dollars and set out with his wife and three children to Nairobi.


An old man practising plumbing in Don Bosco vocational training centre. PHOTO | POOL

But the beautiful life he had envisioned was not to be. At first, all was well because he had the money he brought with him. But it would soon run out forcing him to find a job to fend for his family, and there he met his first trouble in Kenya – getting an identification.

After waiting for over three months, he finally got an alien identification card, but as he would soon realise, the card was nearly worthless if not for giving him legal status in the country.

He couldn’t get registered on any mobile network or mobile money platform, open a bank account or access any regulated credit or savings service provider with the alien ID alone. And without any of these, it was not only impossible to get a job but also difficult to self-employ.

“In DRC, I had worked with four NGOs, and I was being paid well, averagely $1,000 every month. But here, I couldn’t find a matching job. I could only find menial jobs which were too hard for me, I could barely survive,” he recounts.

Circumstances seemed to have sealed his fate and for over six years, Mr Mwaka and his family lived in abject poverty in Nairobi.

At some point, he says, they had to live in a school, sometimes in churches and some days they would beg caretakers to stay a night in vacant houses. Most days, they survived on handouts from charities in the city. All because he was cut off from the financial system.

Today, he runs a phone repair shop in Nairobi’s suburb, thanks to help from two charities – HIAS, which paid for his training in a phone repair course, and GiveDirectly, which gave him a Ksh100,000 ($772) unconditional grant which he used to start the business.

To get the grant, GiveDirectly, a cash transfer charity working with vulnerable communities, helped him set up a bank account, enabling him access to a safe place to keep his money, but even that still doesn’t give him access to credit.

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Mobile money

And in a country where many transactions are done through mobile money, he has to manage without an account. In an urban centre no less, it is harder to survive without access to a mobile money account or a bank account.

Like most urban refugees in Nairobi, Mr Mwaka only owns a SIM card and a mobile money account by proxy, the risks of which are not lost on him. Just recently, he lost Ksh12,000 ($92) because he misplaced the SIM card and his proxy couldn’t provide their national ID card for replacement.

This challenge is not unique to him. Most refugees in Nairobi today are unable to fully integrate into the society because they lack access to crucial financial services, which seemingly results from increased rigidity of the regulations governing the financial services sector.

For instance, Farhiyo Mohamed Elmi, 42, who fled her home in Mogadishu, Somalia in 2007 due to the civil war, found a home in Nairobi and was able to get a mobile money account using her alien ID card, but laws have since changed and even her own daughter now can’t.

“Back then I was able to register a line, but my friends who have tried lately are told they can’t be registered using the alien ID card,” she told The EastAfrican.

Such is also the plight of Hakizimana* (not his real name), a Rwandan who fled the country in 2006 due to persecution. He was able to register a phone number back in the days, but his wife and children who joined him later have not been able to, forcing them to using proxies, like many other refugees.

But even Hakizimana still lacks access to crucial financial services like credit. To make ends meet, he makes sculptors and sells them to retailers who sell to tourists in Nairobi, but he wishes he could get more from his craft.

Read: Refugees, locals to mix as Kenya closes camps

“If I could just access a loan to open up my own shop and be able to sell directly to clients, I could make so much more. I don’t make as much here because of the middlemen,” he says.

Both Farhiyo and Hakizimana were also beneficiaries of the GiveDirectly grant to urban refugees, which they both used to start or build the small businesses they rely on today, and was also the only reason they own bank accounts today.

Not all refugees are lucky to land such donations or charities which can help them set up even a bank account.

Many urban refugees in Nairobi rely on proxies to be able to access any semblance of a financial service, and most are completely cut off from the conventional banking services.

“They don’t have access to financial services and one of the biggest reasons for that is their lack of proper documentation and perceptions in the community,” argues Teddy Kinyoro, a senior programmes manager at GiveDirectly in Nairobi.

For urban refugees, the financial exclusion is nearly as bad as a lack of identity altogether. “The challenges refugees face in urban areas are very unique compared to rural set-ups,” argues Mr Kinyoro.

“Refugees don’t have access to land. The only thing they have access to is a small space they can set up a business, but even setting up a business requires money, and this is what they can’t get.”

According to Mr Kinyoro, all of the over 800 refugees who benefitted from their urban refugee programme about two years ago had no bank accounts.

Read: No funds to support DRC refugees in Tanzania

They were only able to get the accounts through the charity’s intervention, since they have a Memorandum of Understanding with one of the commercial banks in the country, which waived the requirement for some documents.

To get a bank account from most banks in Kenya, refugees are required to have a PIN Certificate from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), a Refugee Card, and sometimes a recognition letter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or even a work permit, all of which they cannot immediately access, and most take years before they can get any of them.

“Very few refugees have a KRA PIN, for instance. To get it, a refugee must have a Refugee Card, it’s non-negotiable,” said Mr Kinyoro, adding that based on their research, only about 40 percent of refugees have a valid refugee card.

This essentially means that as a registered asylum seeker in Kenya, there is no way you can open a bank account to enable you transfer assets or receive money from abroad. Even for those granted refugee status, it is still a nightmare.


Congolese refugee Grace Kashama (L) learns tailoring under the guidance of a staff member of People for Peace and Defense of Rights (PPRD), a refugee-led NGO, during a tailoring and fashion training class in Kampala, Uganda on June 11, 2024. PHOTO | XINHUA

“It is possible to open a bank account as a refugee but it’s extremely difficult,” argued Mr Kinyoro.

Muthoki Mumo, sub-Saharan Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told The EastAfrican that even with all the necessary documents, exiled journalists in Kenya still find it hard to access financial services.

“Not only is earning an income a problem, but accessing the basic financial services that many of us Kenyans take for granted,” Ms Mumo said.

CPJ helps relocate journalists facing an imminent threat in their countries due to their journalistic work.

Ms Mumo told The EastAfrican that Kenya has proven nearly uninhabitable for exiled journalists due to the difficulties in accessing financial services, and many of them eventually opt to settle down elsewhere.

Why is it so hard for refugees and asylum seekers to access financial services in Kenya?

According to Mr Kinyoro, the problem is rooted in the difficulty accessing the required documentation, especially the alien ID card, which mainly stems from administrative challenges due to the huge backlog of asylum seekers in the country at any given time.

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Refugee status

Ms Mumo adds: “There’s the issue of access to information; maybe people coming here do not immediately have access to the information they need to navigate the system. Secondly, even when things are working perfectly, there’s a bureaucracy to deal with, but things never work perfectly because it’s a system that is strained with many people seeking to get services.”

Indeed, data from the UNHCR shows Kenya is currently host to about 538,899 refugees and 152,942 asylum seekers – who are yet to be granted refugee status in the country as of December last year.

The number of refugees rose seven percent since end of 2022, but the number of asylum seekers more than doubled from 69,011 in 2022, reflecting a slow processing of asylum seekers and granting of refugee status.

Compared to neighbouring Uganda, Kenya appears be processing asylum seekers much slower despite having fewer refugees compared to Kampala.

Last year, for example, Kenya granted refugee status to only 34,426 people, while Uganda welcomed 113,975 new refugees to its borders, with only 37,657 asylum seekers left pending at the end of the year.

Currently, Uganda hosts over 1.5 million refugees, more than triple the number in Kenya, and experts believe this could be linked to the fact that refugees find it more habitable than Kenya, especially in terms of financial inclusion.

“In some ways, Uganda is a much friendlier place to be as a refugee compared to Kenya,” argues Ms Mumo.

“Overall, we have a very different situation in Uganda with the national refugee policy and the open-door policy, whereby refugees are allowed to move freely and access all the different types of services like nationals,” said Matilda Jerneck, cash-based interventions coordinator at UNHCR Uganda.

One of the stark differences with Kenya is that in Uganda, the refugee card alone or even the family attestation document – the equivalent of the proof of registration in Kenya – is enough to open a bank or a mobile money account.

It is also easier and faster to get the necessary refugee documentation in Uganda, and refugees are allowed to even own assets such as motor vehicles or land, unlike in Kenya.

According to Ms Jerneck, this hasn’t always been the case in Uganda.

According to her, Uganda succeeded because it considered refugees as a ‘specific interest group’ in its national financial inclusion policy and endeavoured to ensure inter-operability between different regulators, banks and mobile network operators to ensure the refugee documentations can be easily verified.

Both Mr Kinyoro and Ms Mumo contend that this one of the major challenges in Kenya.

Banks and mobile network operators cannot easily verify these documents and therefore opt not to take them in the registration process.
The Central Bank of Kenya, which is the financial sector regulator in Kenya, acknowledged receipt of our questions on their work plan to help boost financial inclusion for refugees in the country, but did not respond by the time of going to press.

However, the government this month received a $50 million grant from the World Bank to help with its refugee policy reforms aimed at improving their participation in the labour market and their access to basic social and financial services.

GiveDirectly’s research reveals that the urban refugees that benefited from their programme and gained access to banks accounts were able to save more and about 81 percent realised an increase in income levels.

Yet, gaining access to these services is the first step. Ms Jerneck and Mr Kinyoro contend that there needs also to be an attitude change towards refugees; to consider them just as risky as locals so lenders can loan them just as easily as they would citizens.