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Faith Nyasuguta 

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

Leaving his home in eastern DRC, Mwaka left behind a stable, well-paying job with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). His decision was driven by the relentless harassment from local rebels who made it impossible for him to live in peace due to his refusal to join them. 

“They terrorized me, consistently stealing the NGO’s property, which I had to pay for. They even came to my house at night when I was away, stole my things, and raped my wife. It was too much, so I decided to leave,” Mwaka recalls.

Kenya seemed like an ideal destination, far from the turmoil of his home. He believed Kenya to be a welcoming country for refugees, a perception fueled by the popular song “Jambo Kenya,” which claims, “Nchi yetu, hakuna matata,” Kiswahili for “there’s no trouble in our country.” 

With a limited understanding of Swahili, Mwaka was convinced 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 for Nairobi.

Initially, life was manageable with the money he had brought. However, as the funds dwindled, the need to find employment became urgent. This was when Mwaka encountered his first significant challenge in Kenya: obtaining identification. After waiting for over three months, he received an alien identification card. 

Recently arrived refugees from South Sudan wait at the UNHCR Elego collection point in Northern Uganda. On the 18th of July 2016 around 2,000 refugees arrived in Uganda seeking assistance after violence broke out in the capital Juba.

However, he soon realized that this card was nearly worthless beyond granting him legal status in the country. It did not allow him to register for any mobile network or mobile money platform, open a bank account, or access any regulated financial services. Without these, finding a job or even self-employment became nearly impossible.

“In the DRC, I worked with four NGOs and was paid well, averaging $1,000 every month. But here, I couldn’t find a similar job. I could only find menial jobs, which were too hard for me. I could barely survive,” he recounts. For over six years, Mwaka and his family lived in abject poverty in Nairobi. They stayed in schools, churches, and sometimes begged caretakers to let them stay in vacant houses. Most days, they survived on handouts from charities in the city.

Today, Mwaka runs a phone repair shop in Nairobi, thanks to assistance from two charities -”HIAS, which paid for his training in phone repair, and GiveDirectly, which provided him with a Ksh100,000 ($772) unconditional grant to start his business. To receive the grant, GiveDirectly helped him set up a bank account, enabling him to store his money safely, though he still lacks access to credit. 

In a country where many transactions are conducted through mobile money, he manages without an account. Like many urban refugees in Nairobi, Mwaka owns a SIM card and a mobile money account by proxy, which comes with significant risks. 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 Mwaka. Many refugees in Nairobi cannot fully integrate into society due to a lack of access to essential financial services, often a result of rigid regulations governing the financial sector. For instance, Farhiyo Mohamed Elmi, 42, who fled Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2007, was able to get a mobile money account using her alien ID card. However, laws have since changed, and even her daughter cannot get one now. 

“Back then, I could register a line, but my friends who try now are told they can’t be registered with an alien ID card,” Elmi .

Hakizimana* (not his real name), a Rwandan who fled in 2006 due to persecution, faces similar challenges. While he could register a phone number back then, his wife and children who joined later have not been able to, forcing them to use proxies. Despite having a phone number, Hakizimana still lacks access to crucial financial services like credit. To make ends meet, he creates sculptures and sells them to retailers who then sell to tourists in Nairobi. 

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

Both Elmi and Hakizimana benefited from the GiveDirectly grant, which they used to start or expand their small businesses. This grant was also the only reason they own bank accounts today. However, not all refugees are fortunate enough to receive such donations or assistance from charities to set up even a bank account. Many urban refugees in Nairobi rely on proxies to access financial services, and most are entirely cut off from conventional banking services.

“They don’t have access to financial services, and one of the biggest reasons is their lack of proper documentation and perceptions in the community,” argues Teddy Kinyoro, a senior program manager at GiveDirectly in Nairobi. For urban refugees, financial exclusion is nearly as severe as lacking identity altogether. 


“The challenges refugees face in urban areas are very unique compared to rural setups,” Kinyoro explains. “Refugees don’t have access to land. The only thing they have is a small space to set up a business, but even that requires money, which they can’t get.”

According to Kinyoro, all of the over 800 refugees who benefited from their urban refugee program about two years ago had no bank accounts. They could only get accounts through the charity’s intervention, thanks to a Memorandum of Understanding with a commercial bank in Kenya, which waived some documentation requirements. 

Typically, to open a bank account, refugees in Kenya need 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 a work permit. Most refugees cannot immediately access these documents, and it can take years to obtain them.

“Very few refugees have a KRA PIN, for instance. To get it, a refugee must have a Refugee Card, which is non-negotiable,” says Kinyoro, adding that based on their research, only about 40 percent of refugees have a valid Refugee Card. This means that as a registered asylum seeker in Kenya, opening a bank account to transfer assets or receive money from abroad is nearly impossible. 

Even those granted refugee status face significant challenges. “It is possible to open a bank account as a refugee, but it’s extremely difficult,” Kinyoro argues.

Muthoki Mumo, the sub-Saharan Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), notes that even with all the necessary documents, exiled journalists in Kenya find it hard to access financial services. “Not only is earning an income a problem, but accessing the basic financial services that many Kenyans take for granted,” Mumo said. CPJ helps relocate journalists facing imminent threats in their countries due to their work.

According to Mumo, Kenya has proven nearly uninhabitable for exiled journalists due to difficulties accessing financial services, prompting many to settle elsewhere. Why is it so hard for refugees and asylum seekers to access financial services in Kenya? Kinyoro attributes the issue to challenges in obtaining the required documentation, particularly the alien ID card, stemming from administrative backlogs due to the high number of asylum seekers.

Data from the UNHCR shows Kenya hosts about 538,899 refugees and 152,942 asylum seekers as of December last year. The number of refugees increased by seven percent since the end of 2022, while the number of asylum seekers more than doubled, reflecting slow processing of asylum applications. Compared to Uganda, which hosts over 1.5 million refugees and processes applications faster, Kenya appears less hospitable in terms of financial inclusion.

“In some ways, Uganda is a much friendlier place to be a refugee compared to Kenya,” argues Mumo. Uganda’s open-door policy allows refugees to move freely and access various services like nationals. Unlike in Kenya, refugees in Uganda can open bank or mobile money accounts using their Refugee Card or family attestation document.

Uganda succeeded by considering refugees a specific interest group in its national financial inclusion policy and ensuring interoperability between regulators, banks, and mobile network operators to verify refugee documents easily. This contrasts with Kenya, where banks and mobile operators often cannot verify these documents, opting not to accept them.


Despite these challenges, the Kenyan government recently received a $50 million grant from the World Bank to reform refugee policies and improve their access to financial services. Research by GiveDirectly indicates that refugees who gained access to bank accounts saw increased savings and incomes. Yet, accessing these services is only the first step. 

Both Mumo and Kinyoro emphasize the need for an attitude change towards refugees, treating them as equally risky as locals so lenders can loan to them as they would citizens.


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Faith Nyasuguta

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