Thoughts on World Refugee Day

Richard Branson sitting at his home on Necker Island
Virgin Galactic
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Published on 19 June 2022

As many parts of the world are engulfed in conflict, we must not close our eyes to the rapidly increasing number of people that have been forced to flee war, persecution, oppression, and other humanitarian crises – and quite often all of the above.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, now estimates that there are more than 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide – a shocking figure that includes refugees who have made often perilous journeys into other countries, as well as even larger numbers of internally displaced persons desperately seeking shelter and support elsewhere within their nations’ borders.

According to UNHCR’s latest data, Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine alone has forced one third of Ukrainians to flee their home. More than five million Ukrainian refugees have been officially recorded across Europe (the real number is likely much higher), and many European countries deserve credit for welcoming them swiftly, with generosity and care, and with solidarity.

Woman speaking to group at UNHCR event in Ethiopia
Image from UNHCR

Yet, we shouldn’t forget the millions of others – from Afghanistan to Venezuela, from Yemen and Ethiopia – who are often left stranded, at real risk to their lives and livelihoods, hoping for the same kind of solidarity that will allow them to find peace and a chance to rebuild their existence in dignity and free from fear.

Sadly, refugees are all too often mislabelled as “illegals” or “economic migrants”, which feeds into xenophobic narratives whipped up for political gain. It’s important to remember that no refugee chooses their fate voluntarily. Behind the shocking numbers lie harrowing stories of communities torn apart, of families uprooted, of individuals separated from their loved ones and their friends – of dreams and aspirations crushed. If history has taught us anything, we should know that it can happen anywhere, to any of us.

Businesses and their leaders play a critical role in addressing this ever-growing global crisis. For one, more of us should speak up – collectively and individually – and advocate for political solutions that don’t prolong the suffering or create more peril, and that foster a climate of support and integration. There are many fantastic organisations working globally and locally that welcome business voices demonstrating solidarity and calling for better, more inclusive policies.

Of course, business should not only speak up, but seek ways to help rebuild refugee livelihoods through their own operations, whether that is by recruiting refugee talent or integrating refugee-led businesses into supply chains.

It’s a message close to my heart: as a serial entrepreneur, I’ve always been impressed and inspired by the well-documented entrepreneurial energy that so many refugees bring to their host societies. There is no doubt in my mind that the contribution of refugees has shaped many modern societies in the most positive ways. Much of humanity’s progress, in technology and science as much as in arts and culture, is inextricably linked to the ingenuity of refugees and their enterprising spirit.

At Virgin, we have for several years worked closely with UNHCR’s Made 51 project, connecting gifted refugee artisans working in refugee camps around the world to global retail supply chains. Gorgeous Made51 products are available at Virgin Megastore and also on Virgin Atlantic flights, with more opportunities to come.

Richard Branson at Virgin Megastores Dubai
Image from Virgin Megastores

And to mark World Refugee Day, Virgin Balloon Flights has teamed up with refugee entrepreneurs from The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) in the UK, a partner of Virgin StartUp. Maria Callisto and Teem Khan, aspiring refugee designers in TERN’s ANQA Collective, a marketplace for refugee entrepreneurs, have repurpose retired balloon envelopes, giving them a second life as aprons, picnic blankets, bags, and bikinis. These products are now available for purchase on Virgin Red, with all proceeds going to brilliant refugee entrepreneurs.

There are countless ways in which we all can help refugees rebuild their lives. On this World Refugee Day, let’s demonstrate that we #standwithrefugees, every day.

Head over to some of the brilliant organisations working for and with refugees:

Humanitarian NGOs

UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency

IRC – The International Rescue Committee

Refugees International

Business Engagement

The Tent Partnership for Refugees

Refugee Employment

Talent Beyond Boundaries

Refugee Employment Network (UK)

Refugee Entrepreneurship

Made 51TERN – The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (UK)

The ANQA Collective

The Refugee Investment Network

51 Labs