Fresh FINDings (The FIND Newsletter) – September 8, 2020

In this issue of Fresh FINDings we feature research from Kenya, led by Julie Zollmann in collaboration with Cate Wanjala. Please visit the Journeys Project at Tufts University for previous studies, ongoing research, videos, maps, and artwork on refugees and migrants in the Middle East and Mediterranean, Latin America, and Africa.

This month…

  • The Bureaucratic Burdens of Un-Belonging
  • Identification Constraints in Jordan

The Bureaucratic Burdens of Un-Belonging

By Julie Zollmann

Our research around the world has highlighted the significant barriers to financial access and work imposed by legal and bureaucratic structures that make it very difficult, costly, or wholly prevent refugees from rebuilding a full financial life in displacement.  We can see these harmful structures at work in Kenya, where de jure rights to work are stymied by the de facto difficulty of obtaining the work permits and other licenses needed to operationalize that right.  Once allowed access to services like banking and mobile money, legal requirements shifted over time and blocked access to lifeline financial services.  With many refugees in Kenya living in the country for 20+ years, they wonder when they will be relieved from the constant stress of their legal limbo.

“Dilemma” by Liyou Zewide

Philip, a 38-year-old refugee, was despondent when we spoke with him last week.  After ten years in Kenya, it is still not safe for him to return home to the DRC.  He has not been offered resettlement and many of his efforts to work in Kenya have been thwarted by bureaucratic barriers. 

As the only income earner for his family of four (especially under the financial strain of COVID) Philip is extremely stressed, desperate to have a permanent solution, and to fully belong to a place.Most importantly, Philip wants to work and to be the professional he sees himself as. 

“I am not asking for a handout!  I have a sharp mind. I am able bodied.  I just want to work.” 

At home in the DRC, Philip worked as a driver for his church and earned about $150 per month. He and his wife lived in the family home and didn’t paying rent, so he had some extra cash that he would lend out as a moneylender (earning about 20% in interest per month).  As conflict encroached on his community, he and his wife fled. They went first to Uganda, then to Kenya. 

In Kenya, they were received by an old family friend from home who introduced them to a new church, where Philip was hired to help with sound.  Through persistence and savvy, he collected many pieces of documentation that he needed to build a life and what he hoped would allow him to get a stable job.  He managed to obtain:

  • A refugee mandate—a letter now issued by the Refugee Affairs Secretariat that acknowledges his refugee status and is meant to be renewed annually
  • Proof of refugee registration from the Refugee Affairs Secretariat – for the entire family, renewed after their second son was born
  • A refugee ID card—renewable every five years
  • A travel document issued by the Refugee Affairs Secretariat and renewable every two years, allowing Philip to leave and return to Kenya
  • A Kenya Revenue Authority PIN—a personal tax identification number allowing him to pay taxes and hold a Kenyan bank account
  • A Kenyan drivers’ license – renewable every three years through the National Transport Safety Administration
  • A class M work permit—issued by the Kenyan Immigration Authorities to eligible refugees allowing them to hold jobs in Kenya, renewable every two years (but extremely difficult to get and non-transferrable across employers)

He did his best to leverage his skills and to build a portfolio of work as a musician, sound technician, and informal taxi driver.  He was particularly excited when he was offered a job as a translator at an international school.  He was even able to get a work permit for this job.  He was then offered a job as a French teacher in a good private school. Just as he felt that he was on a good professional trajectory, he lost his job.  In order to confirm his full-time contract, the school needed his Teachers Service Commission (TSC) number which is issued to eligible teachers in Kenya.  As a refugee, Philip was not eligible for this documentation. 

To cope, Philip started driving for Uber and Taxify, two large ride hailing firms in Nairobi.  In the early days, everything was fine.  He was earning a decent income and was able to pay his bills while also making time for his side jobs as a musician and sound technician.  But then, the ride-sharing platforms instituted new rules.  Drivers would need a special “Public Service Vehicle” badge in addition to their normal driver’s license.  Getting this “PSV” required a “Good Conduct Certificate” issued by the Kenyan Police.  However, refugees are not eligible for the same certificates as Kenyans.  They instead get their certificates from the Refugee Affairs Secretariat, and the agency that issues PSV badges does not recognize those certificates.  Philip was blocked from accessing the platforms without this key piece of documentation. 

He says that the UNHCR offered to help, but never followed through.  He asked a legal aid organization for help but claims they turned him away as well, saying that they only deal with violence cases.  He sought help from the government’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS), and was promised follow-up calls several times but they never materialized.

Denied these critical bureaucratic permissions, he is forced to stay in the informal economy.  The COVID crisis is revealing just how precarious that habitat is.  For months he has lost income from performing in church, helping do sound for big events, performing music gigs in pubs and bars, and even working informally as a taxi driver using his pastor’s car.  He has only been able to pay half of his rent for the past several months, getting just small bits of income from tutoring his neighbors’ children in French. 

Frustrated by these bureaucratic dead ends and by years of working hard for jobs that are pulled away because of his refugee status, Philip just wants to belong.  If he can’t go home and resettlement is unlikely, Philip wonders if he can become a Kenyan permanent resident or citizen.  While legally, after holding a work permit for seven years, he should be eligible for permanent residency status, few refugees (if any) have achieved this designation. 

His refugee status feels especially restrictive now during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Right now, in this corona time, no one is thinking about us.  And the NGOs who are supposed to be helping have closed their doors.” 

Philip doesn’t want aid.  He wants to work and, for once, to be legally recognized for what he feels he has already become—a law abiding and tax-paying member of the Kenyan community. 

Other resources:

  • The Norwegian Refugee Council has an excellent report (2017) on refugee identity and status documentation in Kenya. 
  • The Refugee Consortium of Kenya explored legal avenues for local integration of refugees in Kenya in this 2016 report

Identification Constraints in Jordan

By Swati Mehta Dhawan

We see similar stories to Philip’s in our research in Jordan. Abu Samer, a 40-year-old Syrian refugee, is prevented from achieving his full potential by the legal barriers to obtaining documents (e.g. a driver’s license) and owning assets. Only through his strong will, entrepreneurial spirit, and willingness to take risks has he successfully set up multiple small businesses and is no longer dependent on handouts to support his family of fifteen. Nevertheless, he is restricted by his refugee status because he runs a transportation business without a driver’s license and has invested in vehicles that are in other people’s names. He has also lost a lot of his investment due to this and is no longer interested in investing in Jordan without legal rights. More on Abu Samer and other insights from Jordan will follow in the next issue.


Fresh FINDings is made possible through a partnership among Tufts University, the Katholische Universität Eichstätt – Ingolstadt (Catholic University or KU), the International Rescue Committee and GIZ. Fresh FINDings also features work sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, and the International Organization for Migration.

Contact: Kimberley.Wilson@tufts.edu


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