When ID leaves you without identity: the case of double registration in Kenya

Tens of thousands of Kenyan citizens are stuck in legal limbo, unable to obtain national IDs because their fingerprints are captured in refugee databases. Their dilemma highlights the pitfalls of humanitarian biometrics.


In Kenya, if you don’t have an ID, life can be extremely difficult. But for thousands of people across the country, getting an ID can be nigh on impossible. Some Kenyan citizens can’t obtain a national ID because they are registered in the Kenyan refugee database. Often referred to as victims of double registration, their predicaments reveal a deeper problem with ID itself.

Now Haki na Sheria - a Kenyan organisation advocating for and supporting the victims of double registration - and three victimes of double registration are taking the Kenyan government and the UNHCR to court for unconsitutionally denying double registered citizens national IDs and the rights that come with them.

What is double registration?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees fled into neighboring Kenya, escaping civil war. The influx of asylum seekers coincided with periodic droughts in northern Kenya, which borders Somalia and is one of the country’s most politically and economically marginalized regions. Over the years, many ethnic Somali Kenyans living in the north of the country slipped into the refugee system in order to access vital food aid, education, health care and, in some cases, the coveted opportunity to be resettled abroad. Many people were registered when they were minors, often without their knowledge, and only discovered that they were in the refugee database when they turned 18, the age when Kenyans apply for a national ID.

Years later, because their fingerprints were captured on refugee databases, they could no longer access national IDs. Without a Kenyan national ID, many basic economic and political rights are out of reach. The very system responsible for protecting asylum seekers has effectively rendered tens of thousands of people stateless. 

This problem can be traced to the decision by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to introduce biometric refugee registration in the mid-2000s. It came to the fore when the Kenyan government, with support from UNHCR, took over the refugee registration process in the country. Essentially, the UNHCR both helped the government build its own ink-based refugee database interoperable with its AFIS system and eventually gave the government access to the relevant parts of its biometric case management system.

This facilitated greater data consolidation and interoperability across the refugee and national systems. Today, those who apply for a national ID in Kenya have their fingerprints cross-checked against the government's refugee database. Those caught in the refugee system are typically barred from obtaining an ID even if they possess ample proof of Kenyan citizenship.

The UNHCR are aware of this ongoing issue. Kenyan citizens caught in this legal limbo face an ongoing dilemma: Considered neither citizens nor refugees, they often don’t know where to turn for help. 

Below you can find a series of interviews with people who have struggled to obtain an ID in Kenya - they were filmed in 2019 by Rich Allela and Klein Ongaki, and facilitated by Haki na Sheria.

Habiba Fora is a program officer at Haki na Sheria, a civil society group in the northern Kenyan town of Garissa who works with double registration victims. Here, she explains how drought forced many Kenyan citizens into the refugee system. Many ethnic Somali Kenyan citizens, struggling to feed their families, claimed to be fleeing neighbouring Somalia's civil war to gain access to the food aid and support available in Kenya's refugee camps.
Amina is one of Haki na Sheria's clients. A Kenyan citizen and resident of the northern Kenyan town of Garissa, she describes how she ended up in the refugee system and the difficulties she faces without a Kenyan ID:


"So you see, there are many challenges if you don’t have an ID. In Kenya, there are no places that you can go." - Amina

Life without an ID is filled with restrictions: one cannot move about freely, register a SIM card, open a bank account, enter into many government and corporate offices, or gain formal employment. Some victims of double registration fear they will be mistaken for undocumented migrants and deported to Somalia, a country most have never stepped foot in. 
Kenyan citizens entered the refugee system in a number of ways. In Amina's case, she was registered as a child without her consent. Others registered in the hopes of going abroad.
Below, Adan explains how he registered as a refugee in the hopes of joining his wife abroad. Now, he and his family face numerous difficulties due to his ambigious legal status:


"I am like a stateless person who is not here in Kenya, but I can’t go to Somalia, where I know no one. My father is here. My mother is here." - Adan

Abdullahi was driven into the refugee system after all of his livestock died, as he recounts below. Like Adan, he cannot freely travel to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Were he to try to leave Garissa without an ID, he would be immediately stopped at the security checkpoint along the Tana River bridge on the edge of town.



Many of the victims of double registration are young men, who face police harassment because they don't have IDs. Below, Hamdou explains how he can't walk around town at night out of fear being stopped and detained by police. Unable to pursue higher education or gain formal employment without a national ID, he instead opened up a small kiosk in Garissa town to support himself.


"On top of this, if you run into the police, you can be detained. If you are detained, it's a real problem." - Hamdou

At the end of 2019, the Kenyan government embarked on a vetting process, promising to assess and verify people’s citizenship claims. The aim was to remove anyone deemed to be a genuine Kenyan citizen from the refugee database. Though the vetting process had its fair share of problems, it was nevertheless seen by many civil society groups and double registration victims as a welcome step forward. To this day, however, those who went through the rigorous vetting procedure are still waiting to shed their refugee status and be given national IDs.

Kenya is a clear example of decades of poor management, inequality, and discrimination, resulting in many people lacking birth certificates and other foundational documents. This problem has been exacerbated by a new digital identity system known as Huduma Namba, which the government introduced in 2019 instead of strengthening the country’s civil registration system. PI is particularly concerned about the mandatory nature of Huduma Namba, especially as people are required to have existing forms of identification, such as birth certificates or national IDs, in order to register.

This will pose a challenge for victims of double registration and many of Kenya’s marginalized populations who lack the required documents, even if they can prove who they are through other means. If Huduma Namba replaces the national ID and becomes a pre-requisite for accessing myriad government services and benefits, these populations could potentially face further discrimination.

That’s why Haki na Sheria’s court case is vital - people who are double registered are trapped in a legal limbo and, despite years of promises, the government has yet to release them.

At Privacy International, we believe that everyone should be able to prove who they are and, for many, having some sort of government-provided identitity document provides them with just that. This means that, as we continue to question the need for a digital ID system in the first place, we will also advocate to ensure that digital identification does not become a precondition for enjoying fundamental rights and freedoms and a tool for exclusion. Individuals and groups, especially marginalized populations like migrants and stateless people, should not have to struggle to prove who they are and should have access to the documentation they need to do so, including birth certificates or other forms of ID.

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