The role of the private sector in alleviating the refugee crisis

The Vodafone Foundation’s digital “school in a box,” in partnership with UNHCR, brings tablet-based learning to young refugees living in the Dadaab region of Kenya. Photo by: Vodafone Foundation / UNHCR Dadaab

The scale of the current Syrian refugee crisis has generated significant involvement from private actors, including corporations and individuals. With governments overwhelmed and unable to adequately address the situation, the private sector has a critical role to play in providing for immediate humanitarian needs, as well as supporting refugee resettlement and integration. Private sector involvement in economic development and job creation is also a key component of the long-term solution, which goes beyond this current crisis.

While Syrians trying to reach Europe have dominated headlines, there are many other large refugee populations from a wide variety of countries, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia and Sudan. While some of these situations have endured for decades, others are relatively new, or have worsened in recent years. These refugees have settled throughout the world, from Kenya to India, Russia, Pakistan and Chad.

By the end of 2015, 1 in 122 people in the world had been forced to flee his or her home. More than 20 million people are currently refugees, the highest number in over two decades. Millions of others have been forced to move within their own countries: counting both refugees and internally displaced persons, the United Nations estimates that as many as 60 million are currently displaced, a number that has risen rapidly from the 45.2 million reported in 2012. The sheer volume has made it difficult for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and host governments to cope. Asylum applications were up 78 percent from 2014 to 2015, and the pressure on host countries has grown significantly.

Private sector engagement

“A coordinated response would contribute in ways that benefit businesses, refugees and host societies alike.”

— Open Society Foundation's Maria Teresa Rojas and Alyssa Ross

Businesses and other private entities have responded in a number of ways. Many companies have been working to integrate migrants quickly into host country job markets, an effort that benefits both refugees and businesses.

At U.S.-based Chobani, the world’s largest yogurt factory, refugees account for around 30 percent of a total workforce of 2,000 people. Chobani’s CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, who also created the Tent Foundation to funnel money and technology into programs that help refugees, has called on corporate leaders to step up and provide job training, employment opportunities, and direct assistance.

In Germany, where an aging population has resulted in more than half a million unfilled jobs, corporations have called for an overhaul of laws to allow asylum-seekers to enter the labor force more quickly. Last September, Germany’s four main employers’ associations, which represent hundreds of thousands of companies, requested that the country give approved asylum-seekers faster access to the labor market, as well as to language and skills training. German companies have also developed business to business networks to facilitate the hiring and training of refugees.

Some private entities have offered internships, scholarships, and training courses for refugees, while others have been providing educational opportunities. In Europe, a number of corporations have been hiring refugees as paid interns. These include Deutsche Telekom, Evonik, Bosch Group, Uniqlo and Siemens. Other companies have focused on improving access to education for young refugees.

For example, the Vodafone Foundation has created a digital “school in a box” to bring tablet-based teaching to young refugees living in the Dadaab region of Kenya. The initiative, started in partnership with UNHCR, brings an instant classroom, which can be assembled in 20 minutes, to areas where electricity and internet connectivity are unreliable or nonexistent.

In an effort to better integrate refugees into German society, the football club Bayern Munich has created a “training camp,” which offers food, German language classes, and football equipment. The club also raised 1 million euros ($1.11 million) at a friendly match to support integration projects in Germany.

The impact of private sponsorship

In Canada, companies, communities, and other groups are able to directly sponsor resettlement. Up to 40 percent of refugee places are reserved for privately sponsored refugees. Groups of private citizens pay for transportation, medical costs, rent, and arrival expenses, and help families enroll in schools, set up bank accounts, and look for employment. Most recently, companies and individuals have begun sponsoring Syrian families: the CEO of Canadian appliance company Danby, for example, has pledged $1.5 million to resettle 50 families. The program has enabled Canada to resettle more than 10,000 people in just the last three months.

While Canada’s program, which has existed since 1979, is somewhat unique, private sponsorship exists in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Argentina, and could potentially be expanded to other countries.

One of the most significant problems refugees face is a lack of access to banks and finance systems. The private sector has stepped up with solutions: in Finland, for example, a for-profit company has partnered with the government to provide prepaid debit card and mobile payment accounts to refugees.

Another equally important area of engagement for the private sector is long-term development solutions. Microfinance initiatives have given refugees the capital they need to start and maintain their own businesses. In addition, the private sector can assist host communities, particularly in frontline countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, by investing in ways that create jobs for both nationals and refugees. Impact investment and job creation is an essential part of the solution to displacement and integration.

Greater private sector involvement would add much-needed resources to those invested by the public sector, enhance the efficiency of projects, and improve prospects for success. A coordinated response would contribute in ways that benefit businesses, refugees, and host societies alike.

This is a critical moment for expanding private sector involvement, and for building upon the work that is already being done.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Maria Teresa Rojas

    Maria Teresa Rojas is director of the International Migration Initiative at the Open Society Foundations.
  • Alyssa Ross

    Alyssa Ross is a program specialist with the International Migration Initiative at the Open Society Foundations.