Refugee Access to Work Permits and Business Licenses in Kenya
New Report Explores the Gap between Policy and Practice for Refugee Livelihoods
In Kenya, refugees—in both urban and camp settings—engage in employment and run businesses to cover their basic needs. This is possible under the Refugee Act 2021 that allows refugees to engage in gainful employment and entrepreneurship. Currently, refugees can apply for Class M work permits with Immigration Services. And they can apply for business licences with county authorities to regulate their activities.
Receiving a work permit or business license creates positive impacts in the lives of refugees and for their communities. Business licence holders report being better able to contribute to the local economy. Being able to operate their businesses legally and more freely also reduces the fear of harassment from local authorities. Business licenses can also open doors to bank loans which can expand refugees’ businesses and income. Work permit holders, meanwhile, report feeling more dignity and freedom while also receiving better salaries which supports their mental health and their sense of security.
In practice, access to work permits and business licences is complicated by several barriers. A new report, led by the University of Oxford’s Refugee-Led Research Hub and supported by Mastercard Foundation and WUSC, explores the gaps that exist between policy and practice of refugee access to Class M work permits and business licences in Kenya, and identifies what support is needed to improve access to sustainable livelihoods for urban and camp refugees.
3 Key Findings on the Barriers to Gainful Employment and Entrepreneurship for Refugees in Kenya
Work Permit Applicants Report Significantly More Negative Experiences throughout the Process
Overall, work permit applicants reported significantly more negative experiences compared to business licence applicants. At every step of the process—from getting information, to gathering documents, to applying, to awaiting feedback—work permit applicants faced more challenges, such as a lack of support, inconvenient online systems, and frequent delays in feedback.
Very few refugees in Kenya have been successful in getting a work permit. Those who are must relaunch the process every two years (or sooner if they change employers). Most interviewed applicants were rejected and received a ‘no-merit’ notice on the online platform, meaning they do not know why their application failed and are unable to take steps to re-apply successfully. Because of the sheer length of the process and the uncertainty over its outcome, many respondents give up on the process, do not reapply in case of rejection, or do not apply for renewals. Refugees often lose their employment offers, and employers are more reluctant to hire refugees because of the uncertainty of the process and waiting time.
Obtaining a Refugee Identity Document is Barrier for Both Business License and Work Permit Applicants
Gathering documents, and obtaining a refugee identity document (ID) in particular, was a barrier faced by both business license and work permit applicants. Both need to submit their refugee ID and a Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) Personal Identification Number (PIN). Refugee IDs need to be renewed every five years, and refugees in Kenya continuously experience significant delays during renewals, forcing them to work or operate businesses illegally until they get a new ID. Getting a PIN from the KRA is also a key challenge for applicants; for example, if an applicant’s ID number has not been integrated into the database of the National Registration Bureau (NRB) at the time of application, the online platform might not accept their ID number.
Work Permit and Business License Applicants are More Likely to Be Tertiary-educated Men
As the application processes are complex, good literacy is required. Most applicants had at least some level of tertiary education. This is partly why applicants were more likely to be men, as women affected by displacement face additional barriers to staying in school. Women also face additional gender barriers that limit their likelihood of applying, such as a lack of self-confidence and greater risk of harassment.
Location was another factor that affected the decision to apply. Refugees in Nairobi, Kakuma, and Kalobeyei were more likely to have information about business licenses than those in Nakuru and Mombasa. This was due, in part, to the limited reach of sensitization campaigns. In addition, refugees in Nairobi had an advantage in applying for work permits as they are only issued from that city. Networks with the host community also played a key role in facilitating the business licence acquisition process because the process is similar for nationals, and because refugees in urban settings often run their businesses alongside host community members who are in a position to help them with registration.
Recommendations for Actors Involved in the Refugee Employment and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem
- The Government of Kenya should establish a feedback channel for applicants to communicate the processing time for work permits. This can be communicated on the platform, or through the existing UNHCR hotline. Moreover, Immigration Services should provide clear feedback on why applications were rejected so refugees can adapt and re-apply. The government should also make the portal easier to navigate and consider options for offline applications for refugees with limited IT skills.
- The Department of Refugee Services (DRS) should create a desk position in Nairobi and Kakuma to support work permit applicants. Outside of Nairobi and camps, DRS should train liaison officers to make it accessible. DRS should also raise awareness on refugee documentation and rights in different institutions. To do so, DRS could provide regular training to staff at all levels (including security personnel) on the different types of documents refugees may hold and the refugee identity card’s role as standard documentation. DRS could also lobby the NRB to make sure that refugee IDs are integrated in a timely manner.
- UNHCR should play the main role in disseminating information. For employers, UNHCR should set up an online resource to help them access a clear explanation of how to address requirements. For refugees, UNHCR should improve the accessibility of information in more marginalised locations such as Nakuru and Mombasa.
- Employers should ensure that they coordinate internally to support refugees’ application processes and be flexible with refugee applicants so they do not miss out on opportunities.
- Refugee-led Organisations (RLOs) should play a key role in providing information to refugees on social media and through peer-counselling.
About the Research
This study was led by the Refugee-Led Research Series, and was supported by Mastercard Foundation and WUSC. The report was prepared by Foni Joyce Vuni (Research Lead, RLRH) and Buhendwa Iragi (Research Assistant, RLRH), with support from Pauline Vidal (Research Facilitator, RLRH). A team of refugee researchers led the study from start to finish between May and December 2022 in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret, the Kakuma camp, and the Kalobeyei settlement in Kenya. Findings are based on 11 key informant interviews (KIIs) with refugee-supporting organizations and members of the private sector, 81 in-depth interviews with refugees who have applied (successfully and unsuccessfully) for work permits and business licences in Kenya, and 11 focus group discussions with 73 individuals from the refugee community. The research design and results were discussed with refugees and refugee-supporting organizations during three consultations. The findings were published in June 2023.
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