How business can make a difference for refugees

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the global number of refugees has reached unprecedented proportions. More than 68 million people worldwide have been forced from their homes by the end of 2017, far more than the entire UK population. 

War, violence and persecution in many parts of the world are progressing at such rapid pace that nearly 44,000 people are displaced every day now, a number so staggering that it’s easy forget that this means 44,000 individual lives uprooted, families torn apart, communities destroyed and homes lost.

Contrary to what most people think, the rich industrialised nations of the developed world do not bear the brunt of this truly global crisis. Of the more than 25 million refugees that have fled their home countries, 85 percent now live in developing regions. In Lebanon, where vast numbers of Syrians have found a home after escaping from their country’s bloody civil war, nearly one in six residents is now a refugee. These figures are often overlooked, particularly in Europe or the US where populist rhetoric has fuelled anti-refugee sentiments, including in regions that are confronted with comparatively small numbers of refugees.

I’ve never made a secret of my sympathy for the plight of refugees and often called for greater openness and tolerance from governments and societies more broadly. While governments have a responsibility to protect refugees from greater harm and provide safety and shelter, it is clear that a collective response to the refugee crisis requires everyone to do their part, including business.

What exactly that means has been a complex question for many companies – the options for engagement differ widely between countries, depending on the legal frameworks and the individual circumstances of refugees. But business has enormous opportunities to put refugees on a pathway to economic self-sufficiency, not simply through employment, but also through the integration of refugee-led businesses into supply chains.

Like many others, we are still in the early stages of learning how we can make the most meaningful contribution, but I was delighted to hear of the team at Virgin joining forces with the International Rescue Committee, Ben & Jerry’s, the B Team and the Tent Foundation to launch BRAN – the Business Refugee Action Network. BRAN’s mission is a simple one: help business understand how to engage with refugees, identify refugee-focused approaches and business models that work and find ways of bringing them to scale whilst collectively speaking out to support a refugee-friendly business environment and a more positive public debate. 

BRAN’s work draws inspiration from many of the fantastic efforts already underway, such as the Tent Foundation’s research and business mobilisation, the IRC’s thought leadership on integration and its humanitarian work the many national business initiatives, like Wir Zusammen in Germany. There is still a long way to go in creating the welcoming and supportive climate refugees need and deserve, but efforts like these give me hope that business stands with refugees for good, as we all should.


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