What role can big businesses play in the global refugee crisis?


Hege Sæbjørnsen 

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Hege Sæbjørnsen Country sustainability manager, UK and Ireland at IKEA Group

The world is currently facing the worst refugee crisis in recorded history. A long-term solution is desperately needed, with The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimating that in 2016 only 189,300 of the 22.5 million people seeking refuge were resettled. Following on from World Humanitarian Day and in light of the current global situation, I am urging businesses to step up their support for the millions of displaced refugees around the world to give them the opportunity for a better life, and together take action.

Is it only the job of governments and NGOs to intervene? With the scale of the crisis on an unprecedented level, how can businesses support?

Donating money to refugee agencies such as the UNHCR is often an effective way for businesses to support the crisis. The UNHCR provides vital support to refugees across the world, with money received contributing to providing shelter, access to education, livelihood opportunities and renewable energies. As part of the IKEA Foundation’s Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign, the UNHCR received funds to construct a solar plant in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, which has brought renewable power to a population that had previously lived for two and a half years with only sporadic access to electricity.

However, businesses have the opportunity to contribute to this crisis in far more ways than just aid. With 119,000 refugees currently living in the UK, I believe that big companies all stand to benefit from playing an active role in offering long-term employment opportunities. Welcoming refugees into a business is a sustainable, win win contribution towards a better everyday life for refugees. And it’s not simply a case of being charitable or ‘doing favours’. It can positively impact businesses, bringing in new skills and ideas and the possibility to nurture and empower, providing people with a secure future, whilst fostering pride in a workplace.

Hiring refugees also contributes to the diversity of a workforce, which should be viewed as a positive step for any business. We know that recognising our co-workers’ differences contributes to creativity and supports our growth.

Companies should also utilise their unique expertise to help solve humanitarian problems creatively. This can range from innovative product ideas – such as the flat pack shelters produced by Better Shelter, an IKEA Foundation initiative and used for long lasting infrastructures for refugee villages – to creative ways to deliver important services, such as MasterCard’s prepaid debit cards which give refugees immediate access to the emergency funds they so desperately need.

Partnering with registered refugee charities such as Breaking Barriers is another way for companies to find a sustainable solution for those who have been displaced and now face barriers to employment. Breaking Barriers works in the UK to integrate refugees through employment, ideally in careers that offer the chance to utilise people’s skills, experience and qualifications from their countries of origin. For example, the Bank of America sponsored an initial 12-month pilot with the charity to support 18 to 24-year old refugees into further education and employment – through a programme called BB Futures. By working together they have already supported 18 refugees, 14 of which are in permanent employment or further education. Ashurst, a law firm, is another organisation supporting refugees by sponsoring a new employment delivery centre near Old Street (London) which will be opening later this year. The centre will offer employment support, English classes and a crèche.

Through our partnership with Breaking Barriers, IKEA will be supporting 80 refugees by the end of 2017, by giving them access to customer service training and English lessons. All of these 80 people will get an assessment day with IKEA at the end of the process with the aim of being offered a job in one of the London stores.

Mooud, a refugee from Iran, was studying for a masters in 2011 when he had to leave his home country abruptly. He is now working full-time at our Tottenham store as a kitchen designer, which has helped him to live a fulfilled, self-sufficient and different way of life. Mouud believes that working in full time employment has “given [him] an opportunity to uncover [his] ability” and has allowed him to “build on [his] self-confidence again.” In 2018, we will be rolling out this scheme to other stores across the country.

Now more than ever, businesses, governments and NGOs alike should work together to support global and local efforts helping refugees. Whether it’s reassessing hiring policies, financial support, or through improving livelihoods, businesses should also be at the forefront in responding to this crisis in a way that works with their values and capabilities. It’s time for businesses to work together to address the wealth of talent that is being shamefully left behind by this global crisis.