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Inclusion in Ethiopia’s ID system opens new doors for refugees


Inclusion in Ethiopia’s ID system opens new doors for refugees

A landmark digital identity initiative in Ethiopia integrates refugees and asylum-seekers into the country’s national systems, providing hope along with access to national services.
24 May 2024
A woman wearing a bright red shirt stands behind the counter of a cafe

Ibtisam Khaled Al-Barti, a Yemeni refugee living in Ethiopia, stands behind the counter of her coffee shop in Addis Ababa's Merkato.

A year after arriving in Ethiopia, Ibtisam Khaled Al-Barti joined an informal savings group to raise the capital to start a business. Despite losing her home and her identity documents when she fled violence in Yemen, she was determined to do everything she could for her two children.

“I've worked many jobs, attempted many trades,” she said, but each time, she faced the challenge of obtaining formal documents to register her business. “I've worked as a shoeshiner and as a broker, but all these businesses were considered to be illegal,” she said, adding that several shops she opened in the capital Addis Ababa were closed due to lack of permits.

Accessing key services

Thanks to a new digital ID system launched earlier this year by the Government of Ethiopia through its Refugees and Returnees Services (RSS), in partnership with the National ID Program (NIDP) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, refugees like Ibtisam can more easily obtain business permits and access financial services and health care.

Ibtisam was among the first group of 3,000 refugees to receive biometric refugee ID cards, each featuring a unique national identification number, called “Fayda”.

Beyond facilitating access to key services such as obtaining a SIM card and school enrolment, the new ID card will help refugees open bank accounts and engage in financial transactions. Refugee entrepreneurs such as Ibtisam can also formally register their businesses more easily, contributing to their own income and the local economy.

Legitimate business

In the heart of the Merkato, Addis Ababa’s bustling open-air market, Ibtisam stands at the counter of her newest venture: a coffee shop, where she employs two Ethiopian chefs and serves traditional Ethiopian cuisines and other food. Ibtisam proudly displays her business license and Fayda Digital ID. "Now in this place, I'm legal, I have a business license,” she said. “I have a chance to change my life in a new way.”

A woman spoons food from a saucepan onto a plated flatbread

Ibtisam serves food on Injera, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread she makes in her coffee shop.

Despite having the legal right to obtain a business license, Ibtisam said many institutions in Ethiopia are unaware of these rights of refugees and were sceptical about the earlier IDs and refugee registration documents.  

This new ID means more than just recognition for her business, said Ibtisam: “A lot of institutions used to think that refugees didn't have rights, but the Fayda ID has helped us to be recognized.”

Global Compact on Refugees in action

With the Fayda ID, Ethiopia has become a pioneer in the inclusion of refugees within national systems.

“This landmark initiative is the Global Compact on Refugees in action. It is in line with Ethiopia’s pledge at the 2023 Global Refugee Forum to include all refugees in national systems and enhance access to documentation,” said Elizabeth Tan, UNHCR’s Director of International Protection.

A woman wearing a red short holds up an ID card in one hand and a printed piece of paper in the other

Ibtisam holds up her new digital ID card and the business license for her coffee shop in Addis Ababa.

“The government remains committed to keeping its borders open and has established progressive policies for refugees. However, much more support is needed to ensure refugee inclusion and solutions in Ethiopia,”

The Fayda ID is being rolled out gradually to the 77,000 refugees living in Addis Ababa, and the ambition is to extend it to Ethiopia's over 1 million refugees, mainly from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan.

In late May, UNHCR joined Ethiopia’s Refugee and Returnee Service (RRS) to present this new system at ID4Africa 2024 in Cape Town, South Africa, which showcases the progress being made in digital inclusion and enhancing identity systems to protect refugees in collaboration with host countries.

The ID is transformational for refugees in Ethiopia, said Ibtisam. “The most important thing for me is that I don't need to beg to eat. I am not a burden to the country, and I am self-employed,” she said. “I want to use my strengths to build a future.”