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May 9, 2013


The Plight of an Ethiopian Refugee Searching for Work in Nairobi

by Asylum Access

A 29 year-old Ethiopian refugee named Girma (name changed for anonymity) has been living in Nairobi, Kenya for over five years. Though he graduated from Kenyatta University in Nairobi with a Masters in Economics in 2010, Girma has been facing challenges in his job search. Many young people entering the job market will sympathize with the fact that employment is hard to find.

But Girma’s story is different – he has been facing discrimination in hiring just because he is a refugee.

During our interview, Girma noted that many potential employers both within the private sector and the government are not interested in hiring refugee graduates. In fact, he was explicitly told in a recent interview that the organization simply didn’t offer jobs to refugees. Girma added,

“even though Kenya’s economy is a developing one . . . there should at least be a legitimate ground for refugees to assert their right to work.”

“I have bills that need to be paid on a regular basis.” Girma continued.  “If you do not work, how do you survive?” He asked. This question is relevant for hundreds, if not thousands, of urban refugees who are actively attending higher institutions in Kenya.

Unfortunately, Kenya’s 2006 Refugee Act does not explicitly protect refugees’ right to work, stating in Article 16(4):

“Subject to this Act, every refugee and member of his family in Kenya shall, in respect of wage-earning employment, be subject to the same restrictions as are imposed on persons who are not citizens of Kenya.”

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention Article 17(1) contracting states are obliged to provide refugees access to the right to work, and to the most favorable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstance. Moreover, Article 17(2) states that restrictions imposed to protect nationals from competing for jobs with foreigners shall not be applied to refugees with certain qualifications – one of these qualifications being three years of residence in the country. Similarly, contracting states shall give sympathetic consideration to assimilating the rights of all refugees to be the same as those of nationals.

Under these articles of the 1951 Convention, Girma should not be subjected to discriminatory treatment because of his refugee status.

Due to its vague nature, the Refugee Act is open to interpretation and many employers may presume that refugees are not entitled a right to wage earning employment.  Kenya’s failure to explicitly grant work rights to refugees fails to comply with its obligation under international law. This trend is worsened by the Kenyan government’s recent attempts to implement an encampment policy which has the potential to severely restrict access to employment and freedom of movement.

According to the 2012 US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Kenya is home to more than 100,000 urban refugees who are subject to police harassment and arrest, and are frequently requested to pay bribes. Such illegal acts of Kenyan officials further restricted the free movement of refugees living in urban areas.  Freedom of movement has much to do with accessing the right to work.

Though cruel exercise of political power may cause refugees to flee their countries, they may face similar or worse living conditions and access to economic sustainability in their first country of refuge than in their homeland. This problem is exacerbated when legislation limits access to the right to work.

As of 2011, a new refugee bill has the potential to replace the 2006 Refugee Act in Kenya. As it stands, the bill replicates the 2006 Act’s vague language around wage-earning employment. Instead, a legal environment that protects access to employment should be considered to provide full access to refugee work rights.

As Girma said himself,

“legal protection is a life and death issue for refugees. Kenya should adopt less restrictive refugee laws to reduce barriers to the right to work not only for college graduates but also for every individual refugee.”

Authors: Tadios Belay, Global Policy Intern, Jessica Morreale Therkelsen, Global Policy Director, Anna Wirth, Global Policy Fellow

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