The refugee crisis

One of the most powerful sessions I attended in Davos last week focused on the growing number of refugees forced to flee their homes in the Middle East and Africa. The panel, put together by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani (one of America's leading yoghurt makers), Purpose's Jeremy Heimans and the B Team highlighted the need to come up with creative and effective solutions to help the displaced.

Hamdi is from a Kurdish family and moved to the USA in 1994 to study. Concerned by the growing problems in and around Turkey, he has created the Tent Pledge to encourage the private sector to come up with ways to improve the lives of refugees.

His story is an inspirational one, based on hard work, risk taking and compassion. After studying, he settled in upstate New York and set up a food importing business. His big break was to come in 2005, when he bought a mothballed yoghurt factory from Kraft which he has turned into a thriving business employing more than 1,200 people and producing best-selling Greek style yoghurts. Along the way Hamdi has taken on refugees and trained them to work in his business, raising the profile of the refugee issue and providing a dignified and passionate role model.

Today, the need to act is becoming ever more urgent. Latest figures suggest that more than 60 million people across the globe have been displaced by civil war, terrorism and natural disasters and we now face a humanitarian crisis on a historic scale not seen before. Governments and international bodies such as the UNHCR and the World Food Program are struggling to keep up with the demands of so many people driven from their homes. How we deal with this crisis and the social upheaval created in both the East and West will define our generation.

I have long felt that how we treat refugees is a crucial test of how open and progressive our society is. Over many centuries, countries such America, Canada, Germany, the UK and Australia have been recreated and energized by waves of immigration to populate and then innovate within their economies. These immigrants brought diversity, a hunger to succeed and creative talents to build new lives and leading roles in their new home countries. The desperation of the two World Wars created waves of immigration that reignited the development of America, Australia and beyond. Today the war in the Middle East and the devastation of drought and civil war in Africa has created another mass wave.

Unfortunately, the freedom to move has been curtailed due to pure numbers involved and the rising xenophobia in many countries. The violent events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and ensuing insecurity sadden me greatly. I worry the anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric is gaining support in many of the richest countries. Politicians find themselves under pressure to pander to these fears and basic human rights are forgotten. Indeed, at the panel Jeremy said the refugee situation reminded him of the struggle for LGBT rights. It is as unacceptable to be xenophobic as it is to be homophobic.

Steve Howard of IKEA said that businesses had taken a stand against sexual prejudice and are now speaking out against the dangers of climate change. Together we must turn our attention to the refugee crisis and find practical ways to help.

Hamdi asked for businesses to donate to the key agencies helping in the field, by providing goods such as blankets, clothes and food through to services such as wifi, legal support and logistical know how. He has asked for businesses to look to create jobs and also to look at their supply chains and see where they can help promote and foster companies that employ or support refugees.

As I sat looking out into the room last week, the familiar voice of George Soros sparked another thought. A refugee for many years, driven from his native Hungary, stateless for 15 years and forced to make a life elsewhere, he built a new life and a fortune. While few end up like George, we all know an immigrant who has touched our lives in some way - improved it and made us question all that we take for granted. We owe it to them.

Today George uses his foundation to foster and promote civil justice and also to improve the response to refugees across the world. Both he and Hamdi are committed to highlighting these desperate issues and countering the pessimists with practical ways to integrate and educate a new wave of immigrants. Together we must get behind their lead and ensure we do not turn a blind eye. We must choose to act, as we cannot chose to ignore. Tackling the refugee crisis must be one of the crucial aims of 2016.


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