OPINION: Improve mobile access for refugees in Kenya

Wednesday, 24 June 2020 13:56 GMT

A mobile subscriber withdraws money from an Mpesa shop. Handout pic from Joseph Kany/NMG via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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The coronavirus highlights the need for contactless money transfer and mobile banking

Elizabeth Deng is a human rights lawyer who leads Oxfam International’s humanitarian advocacy in the Horn, East and Central Africa.

Jean Paul Kasika is a paralegal officer at Kituo Cha Sheria, a Kenyan human rights organisation.

Pauline Wesolek is a regional advocacy coordinator at the Danish Refugee Council.

In early March, when COVID-19 had just hit Kenya, one of the first public health recommendations—along with handwashing and even before mask-wearing or school closures—was to use mobile money.

The physical exchange of currency, announced President Uhuru Kenyatta, could be a vector for transmitting COVID-19.

While most Kenyans are well versed with mobile money, nearly half a million people living in Kenya—refugees and asylum seekers—are shut out of using it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the importance of contactless money transfers through mobile banking platforms, to reduce risk of transmission and to enable continued livelihoods despite social distancing, curfews, and movement restrictions.

If there ever was a time to improve the ability of refugees to access SIM cards and mobile banking, it is now.

Refugees disconnected

The first step to accessing mobile money is to have a SIM card. But the Kenya Information and Communications Act does not include refugee IDs among the acceptable documents for SIM card registration. This restricts refugees and asylum seekers from purchasing or registering SIM cards in their names. 

It is hard to imagine life without a SIM card, because having a phone line is a lifeline. Phone lines connect people together; they allow communication with family, friends, and with essential services like police or hospitals.

Phone lines are also critical for earning a living and participating in economic activities, because we need to communicate with our employers and clients. They are also a necessary pathway for accessing internet—our most important portal for information.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, internet access is particularly critical to enabling people to access information about the virus, how it spreads, how to prevent it, where and what the risks are, and what measures the government is putting in place.

The more people can access accurate information, the safer we all are.

No mobile money

Most Kenyans with mobile lines also register to use mobile money—so they can pay for goods and services, buy airtime and data, send, and receive money, quickly and with ease. But without SIM cards, refugees also cannot access and use mobile money.

This creates hurdles for the UNHCR and aid agencies in providing cash-based assistance. Providing cash through mobile transfers makes delivery easier and more traceable. In the context of COVID-19, one advantage is obvious: it requires no physical contact with the receivers.

Having mobile money access would also allow refugees to receive transfers more easily from family or friends. It would support their financial inclusion, self-reliance, and resilience.

Unclear rationale

Refugees’ ability to acquire SIM cards and access mobile money depends on a plethora of actors, including the Communications Authority, the Central Bank, and telecommunications operators.

It seems there is uncertainty among them of the rationale for restricted refugee access and who exactly is responsible for triggering change.

The gap may also stem from a simple failure to update the list of acceptable identity documents in the Kenya Information and Communications Act when, in 2006 the government stopped issuing Alien ID’s to refugees and started issuing Refugee IDs instead.

Fixing this, of course, would require that parliament gets involved too.

Currently, refugees get around hurdles and restrictions by acquiring SIM cards registered in the name of a Kenyan—maybe a friend, or acquaintance. Kenyan proxies may request a facilitation fee or access and take funds for themselves.

Providing legal pathways for refugees to access SIM cards can result in more secure approaches for authorities, as well as for refugees themselves, who don’t have to resort to risky workarounds to get connected.

None are safe unless all are safe

COVID-19 is demonstrating how interconnected we all are—our health and well-being depends on the actions of others.

Because of this, it is in no one’s interest for half a million people to be marginalised from communication, information, economic participation, or from support through mobile money transfers.

To support mobile access for refugees, government agencies and parliament should ensure that refugee identity documents are accepted for SIM card registration and allow them to access mobile banking.  

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