7 ways that businesses can support refugees

The private sector has an important role to play besides philanthropy

Melissa Fleming
Jun 15, 2018 · 8 min read
In 2016, Syrian refugee Ibrahim Toto was awarded the only permanent job at the laundry company midtVask in Aarhus, Denmark. He now mentors newly arrived refugees. © UNHCR/Christian Als

I recently had the honor of co-hosting the first-ever TEDx event held at a refugee camp — it took place at Kenya’s Kakuma Camp, home to more than 186,000 people from 19 different countries. The 15 speakers and artists were a mix of current and former refugees as well as experts who study how the public and economies respond to them, and you’ll be able to watch their talks and performances online in the weeks to come.

While TEDxKakumaCamp took many months of planning to pull off, not every effort to help refugees is so time-consuming. In the past, I’ve written about different ways in which many of us individuals can support displaced people, and now I’d like to point out how businesses can do their part. In the past decade, many businesses have increased their financial donations to organizations that support refugees, which has been great. But I believe the private sector has an important role to play besides philanthropy.

Companies that already embrace this role tend to view it as a social good and also as simply good business. That bodes well for the approach that’s been laid out by the Global Compact on Refugees (due to be adopted by United Nations member states later this year). But with the number of refugees exceeding 25 million worldwide, more companies simply must get involved. Here are seven ways:

1. Help refugees get work — by hiring them or by supporting refugee-owned businesses

Having a job is transformative for anyone, but especially for refugees and their families. Refugees tend to make highly motivated workers. They’re eager to contribute and can bring valuable talents and experiences from their home countries. In a new study, the Tent Foundation — which was founded by Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya with the goal of mobilizing the private sector to support and empower refugees — found that refugees tend to stick with their employers longer and also help recruit other dedicated refugee employees.

Still, sometimes language and skills barriers stand in the way of hiring. In those cases, specialized training and recruitment agencies — like Breaking Barriers in the UK and ReBoot KAMP in Jordan, as well as corporate initiatives like EY Germany’s refugee support team — can help. Some national governments can be recruited as well; Midtvask, an industrial laundry company in Denmark, worked with the Danish government to offer on-the-job training and language classes to newly hired refugees. Not only has it transformed Midtvask’s workplace, but production has increased by 5 percent since the program started. It’s not about charity, it’s about good business, explains Midtvask’s CEO, Pernille Lundvang: “People with different nationalities and different backgrounds creates this dynamic that makes us better.”

Besides hiring refugees, you can support refugee entrepreneurs; since they tend to hire their fellow refugees, you’re often helping their community too. Through its Human Safety Net initiative, Italian insurance company Generali has committed to helping refugees set up 500 new businesses by 2020.

Assisting refugee entrepreneurs can take a variety of forms, from mentoring them through organizations like The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network in the UK to simply buying their products and using their services. Sweden’s IKEA is partnering with the Jordan River Foundation, a social enterprise nonprofit, to source handcrafted products from Syrian refugees and local Jordanian women. The first collection of their handiwork launched in IKEA’s Amman store in December 2017 and will roll out to stores across the Middle East over the next two years, and the program plans to eventually provide work to 400 women artisans.

Dawit, a refugee from Eritrea, during a training session at IKEA, with his colleague Simon.

2. Be an advocate for refugees

Regulatory barriers that prevent refugees from working, owning businesses, or even having bank accounts still exist in many of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the developing world. Global businesses can play a critical, often behind-the-scenes, role by making a business case for economic inclusion of refugees. Banks in several African countries have been using their leverage with national governments to remove some of the impediments to refugees’ financial participation. In 2017, the Bank of Zambia, the country’s central bank, began accepting refugee identification cards. Now, refugees there can open mobile money accounts, which means entrepreneurs can offer banking services to refugees living in even the remotest settlements in Zambia, such as Mayukwayukwa in the western part of the country.

Global businesses can play a critical, often behind-the-scenes

Advocacy may also take the form of encouraging peers in the corporate world to follow your lead. Through its Partnership for Refugees coalition, the Tent Foundation connects businesses committed to supporting refugees so they can share information and best practices. One of its partner organizations, US-based ice-cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s, created the advocacy campaign Together for Refugees, which draws on the support of its customers to convince EU member states to commit to refugee resettlement.

Ben & Jerry’s campaign aims to convince EU members to commit to refugee resettlement.

3. Develop goods and services that refugees need

Every refugee is a potential consumer; identifying their particular needs can be a great business opportunity for companies that are willing to innovate. While refugees represent a relatively small market, expanding services to include host communities increases the number of customers. In rural northern Uganda, for example, poor mobile connectivity was making it difficult for recently arrived refugees from South Sudan to communicate with family members back home and to get electronic cash transfers from aid agencies.

UNHCR turned to businesses for help, reaching agreements with local mobile network operators to replace the cell towers in two refugee settlements and to start selling phones and SIM cards to refugees at reduced prices. As a bonus, people living nearby benefited, both from the boosted phone reception and from being able to sell products to refugees who could now receive electronic cash transfers.

Some financial-services companies are coming up with new ways to better work with their refugee customers. Equity Bank has developed a biometric card for refugees in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda that allows them to receive cash transfers from different aid and development agencies and to send and receive money. In places where refugees still lack access to credit and financial services, crowdfunding platform Kiva allows people anywhere to lend them money to start or expand businesses via its website.

UNHCR supports the Government of Uganda with biometric data verification for refugees across the country.

4. Exchange ideas and know-how with nonprofit organizations that serve refugees

The private sector can bring skills and expertise to bear on problems that the traditional aid sector may be less well-equipped to solve. Equally, businesses can gain from partnering with humanitarian organizations. Aid agencies can advise on refugees’ skill sets, for example, while tech companies can provide platforms to help refugees find jobs. By sharing knowledge and competencies, new ideas can emerge to help refugees.

Airbnb partnered with the International Rescue Committee to host a refugee family from Iraq.

Sweden’s Migration Board has partnered with LinkedIn to match refugees with internship openings. In a similar way, Airbnb is partnering with NGOs to connect Airbnb hosts with refugee families in need of short-term accommodation at no cost. Through its NeedsList platform, TripAdvisor is collaborating with refugee aid organizations and connecting its employees with remote volunteer opportunities that enable them to assist refugees from their computer screens. TripAdvisor employees have helped create a radio app for refugees in Greece and improved the websites of refugee aid groups across Europe.

Big data is another area where partnerships between the humanitarian sector and tech companies could transform the response to refugees. Silicon Valley startup Planet Labs provides satellite data to humanitarian organizations to track displacement and the growth of refugee settlements in remote areas.

5. Put money into funds that invest in refugees

After working as a volunteer with the women and children in her shelter, Iranian refugee Arezoo Jalali is now retraining in the logistics department of the German car manufacturer Porsche in Stuttgart.

Socially-motivated investing, also known as impact investing, means investing directly in refugee-owned businesses or in the social enterprises, NGOs and governments that help refugees integrate and find work. Impact-investing firm Kois Invest aims to raise $30 million to fund six organizations providing employment and entrepreneurship support to Syrian refugees and vulnerable local populations in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Investors can expect a return when certain outcomes are achieved, such as the refugees finding paid work.

Social investment is already funding the No Recourse to Public Funds project in the UK, which gives free housing to in-need refugees and migrants and the Immigrant Access Fund in Canada, which provides loans to migrants and refugees to cover their education. Impact bonds can also be adapted to finance microloans for refugees and sustainable energy for refugee settlements.

6. Engage in smart philanthropy

As a result of IKEA’s ‘Brighter Lives for Refugees’ campaign, many refugees in Ethipia’s Kobe Refugee Camp, in Dollo Ado, will benefit from improved energy solutions. © IKEA Foundation/ Åsa Sjöström/ November 2013

While the ways that businesses can help support individual refugees are expanding, visionary philanthropy can still have a transformative impact on entire communities. For example, the IKEA Foundation has donated US $100 million to improve living standards and foster self-reliance among 200,000 Somali refugees and locals in the remote Dollo Ado region of southeast Ethiopia. The money has been used to build irrigation systems, train farmers, provide small business loans, and create sustainable energy solutions. School enrollment rates are up, malnutrition rates are down, and youth employment is growing. This type of long-term investment in refugee-hosting areas is important not only because it ensures continued support for refugees but also helps prevent conflict with locals over scarce resources.

7. Serve as a role model for other businesses

It’s not realistic or desirable for refugees to exist in vacuums cut off from the rest of society and to be cared for indefinitely by aid agencies and governments. The final way that any business — no matter how small — can make a difference is simple: Lead by example. By demonstrating the benefits of employing and investing in refugees and advocating for more progressive policies, companies can turn “social responsibility” from a source of good PR into a true source of pride and inspiration.

Watch Melissa Fleming’s TED Talk here:

Originally published at ideas.ted.com

We The Peoples

Voices from around the United Nations, with updates on…

We The Peoples

Voices from around the United Nations, with updates on digital diplomacy, peace, security, human rights and sustainable development.

Melissa Fleming

Written by

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

We The Peoples

Voices from around the United Nations, with updates on digital diplomacy, peace, security, human rights and sustainable development.

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