Refugees are our business, too

I had a fascinating time in 2015, working as a consultant on gender equity, diversity and inclusion with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva.  My task was to help UNHCR review and refresh its approach on gender equity, diversity and inclusion for the 9500 staff who work to safeguard the rights and well-being of millions of ‘displaced persons’ (refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, stateless and internally displaced people) right across the globe.

For the last several years I’ve been working on diversity and inclusion in the corporate world, in-house or as an external consultant.  Returning to that world at the end of my time with UNHCR I have been struck by three things:

  • I’m often asked ‘what’s new, what’s coming up?’ in workplace diversity and inclusion – and after working in UNHCR I say this is what’s coming up – refugee and migrant inclusion. At the same time that I had all the luck and the opportunity to work in Geneva, one million migrants were struggling to Europe across land and sea, many fleeing war, conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.  290,000 migrants had their applications for asylum in Europe approved in 2015.  Not all refugees will want to work or be capable of doing so, but many will, and will have the skills, experiences, talent and aspiration which European business needs. To help make entry into the labour market a success, business will need to take the learning from established approaches to inclusion on gender, ethnicity, disability etc and apply these to refugee inclusion too.  And starting small, starting now, makes sense, by helping to challenge stereotypes, misinformation and fear that exist, and in practical terms by recruiting refugees into roles that make use of their skills and experience.
  • Second, there’s a strong business case for corporates to do what they can to facilitate refugee inclusion, as well as a moral imperative. It’s partly about businesses making the most of the talent and experience which refugees bring (a study showed 78% of Syrians arriving in Germany in during 2013 to 2014 were middle class and well-educated) and partly about building relationships with refugees as future consumers and customers.  In Refugee Economies Alexander Betts and his colleagues highlight the numerous other ways in which refugees can benefit host economies as ‘producers, consumers, employees, beneficiaries, lenders, borrowers and social entrepreneurs’.
  • Third, I’ve been struck by how little visible engagement there is from business in the refugee crisis, in Europe at least. There are examples of employers doing good work to raise money, build capacity and develop skills (such as the signatories to this UN pledge and those supporting the Tent foundation) .  But overall as journalist Gillian Tett wrote in the Financial Times, early in 2016: ‘the voice of business has been extraordinarily muted, if not absent, from this wider policy debate’.  I understand why.  It may not be the clearest or most pressing or politically most comfortable place for business to be.  But refugee inclusion is not going away, and getting business leaders round the table with the humanitarian sector for a conversation that begins ‘Refugees are our business, too’ feels to me morally and commercially like the right thing to do.  If this is of interest to you too, please do get in touch.

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