From refugee to digital worker

Thon Mabior Jok

I work as a freelancer on a digital platform. Like millions of other young people around the world, I find odd jobs on the web. So far, nothing special, except that when I log on to the internet to surf the ads, I do it from Kakuma, one of Kenya’s largest refugee camps.

I arrived in Kakuma twenty years ago with my uncle, fleeing the situation in South Sudan. We came with nothing.  But I love to study and thanks to the education opportunities I found in the camp, I managed to complete high school and got a social work degree and a diploma in primary education. Now I am a primary school teacher and a social worker.

Thon Mabior Jok stands in a dry landscape with little vegetation, with buildings of Kakuma camp in the background.

I have lived in Kakuma camp in Kenya for the past twenty years. © Thon Mabior Jok

At the end of 2020, I participated in a course organized by the Refugee Employment and Skills Initiative (RESI) of the International Trade Center (ITC), and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), in partnership with Upwork, a global freelancing platform.I already had a diploma in computer applications that helped, and I learned enough to be able to manage on digital platforms. For several months now, I have been finding jobs on the web, mainly as a translator of Dinka and Juba Arabic – languages mainly spoken in South Sudan – as well as Swahili.

Young people look at laptop screens in the internet centre in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

The only place where I can work online in the refugee camp is at the internet centre. © Thon Mabior Jok

This work provides me with much-needed extra money, but it’s not enough to make a living and it’s not always easy: the connection is not always good, and you can’t work from home. You need to go to the internet centre, which is only open at certain times of the day.The chances of a refugee landing a job on a digital platform are actually very small. Sometimes there are not enough jobs for everyone. There is always a lot of competition. And it is not easy to find a job that pays well. When there is an advert there will be a hundred applications, that’s the main challenge. Of the hundred or so students who attended the course, barely a dozen have found work.

If we want to make working on digital platforms a reality for refugees, we need a lot more help.

If we want to make working on digital platforms a reality for refugees we need a lot more help: new computers, better connectivity, more opportunities. Otherwise, it will remain something we do from time to time.And it’s not just technical problems. As refugees we do not have permanent identification. We have an alien card that expires every five years. This makes it much more difficult for us to get hired and paid, although the good thing about working as a freelancer is that you are not required to have a work permit.
Girls in purple school uniforms play chess.
My former students at the chess club. © Thon Mabior Jok

When I am not on the web, I like to come back to see my students from the chess club. I teach them new moves and how to improve their critical thinking, so they become better players in chess, and in life.

Fast facts

  • Kakuma refugee camp is home to 160,000 refugees from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Uganda. It is one of the largest refugee camps in the world.
  • Sixty-eight per cent of Kakuma refugees live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day.
  • According to an ILO report on refugees and digital labour platforms, refugees must overcome many obstacles to work on digital platforms including low internet access, educational levels and IT skills; a lack of suitable payment systems; and a lack of labour regulation of platform work.
  • The ILO is a partner in the PROSPECTS programme, funded by the Government of the Netherlands, which seeks to improve access to employment, education and protection for refugees and host communities.
  • Under PROSPECTS , the ILO is looking at unlocking some of the challenges faced by digital workers like Thon, including partnering with online platforms that have regular work from international firms.

Find out more

  • Report: Towards decent work for young refugees and host communities in the digital platform economy in Africa: Kenya, Uganda, Egypt
  • Digital labour platforms offer young refugees a possible route to decent work
  • Partnership for improving prospects for forcibly displaced persons and host communities (PROSPECTS)
  • Global Call to Action for a Human-Centred Recovery
  • The UN Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth
Previously posted at :