At the opening of the first Global Refugee Forum on Monday, more than 100 companies and foundations committed their time, money and business acumen to help many of the world’s more than 25 million refugees find jobs, get an education and become contributing members of their countries of exile.
The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 30 organizations including multinationals and small and medium-sized enterprises have pledged more than $250 million to help transform the lives of refugees and the communities hosting them.
High-powered members from the private sector are among the more than 2,000 representatives from governments, the United Nations, humanitarian, and other sectors of society attending the meeting.
They will be seeking solutions for the millions of people who have been forced to flee across borders to escape war, conflict and persecution at a time when attitudes are hardening against asylum-seekers.
In contrast to this negative view of refugees, CEOs at the meeting have sought to project a positive image of refugees as people who, if given a helping hand, can be a great benefit to their countries of exile.
For example, Tolga Oncu, CEO of the Ingka Group and Ikea Foundation, said he did not consider philanthropy to be a one-way street.
“It is good business to do good and we at Ikea have the fortune to think in generations.” He said his company was “super willing to invest” in changing the negative narrative regarding refugees.
“These are friends, colleagues and tomorrow it can be myself, it can be you, it can be our children or grandchildren,” he said. “I think we owe refugees today to make sure that the narrative throughout the world becomes a positive narrative.”
When the refugee crisis hit Europe in 2016, multinational retailer Ikea committed itself to providing employment to many of the refugees who had no means of support. Because of its success, it has pledged to scale up the program.
Oncu said Ikea plans to support 2,500 refugees through job training and language skills in 300 of its stores in 30 countries by 2022. He said this action would help the refugees and his company’s bottom line.
About half of the world’s refugees are children. At least 4 million lack access to education. “This runs the risk not only of being a lost generation, but it is a loss of a mass amount of opportunity for every child that is forgotten in this process,” said Joakim Reiter, CEO of the Vodaphone Foundation.
The Foundation runs high-quality digital education programs for refugee children in camps in Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Reiter said plans are afoot to expand these programs to encompass more than 500,000 young refugees in new countries by 2025.
“Education is key to ensure that these children are not destined to a future of poverty and marginalization that many times come with growing up in a refugee camp,” he said.
The Lego Foundation, makers of one of the world’s best-loved children’s toys also values the opportunities education offers refugee children. Foundation Chief John Goodwin said the foundation is awarding a $100 million grant for play-based learning solutions for pre-primary and primary school-aged children.
He said a consortium led by the International Rescue Committee will use the money to help host governments improve the educational outcomes for 800,000 young children languishing in refugee camps in East Africa.
“We will be doing this through supporting 10,000 educators and 170,000 caregivers, all of whom are going to receive training and professional development on how to engage in learning through play with children who find themselves in these adverse circumstances,” he said.
Goodwin said the Lego Foundation is focusing on East Africa because of the region’s largely forgotten long-standing refugee crises. “Many of the refugees have been displaced for upwards of 30 years,” he noted. “We really want to make an intervention to help the children who find themselves in those environments.”
He added that two of the countries his foundation is focusing on are Ethiopia and Uganda, which host the largest number of refugees.
While most refugees live in camps in some of the poorest countries in the world, a large number live in urban cities in some of the richest countries in the world. The dynamics in these disparate settings is quite different.
Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Turkish-Kurdish billionaire who has built his fortune in the United States as the founder of Chobani, the No. 1-selling strained yogurt in the country. He is also a philanthropist who launched the Tent Partnership for Refugees in 2016 after seeing a settlement in the city of Utica, New York, that housed refugees from 19 countries.
Though they had a safe place to be and had legal rights to work, Ulukaya said “without business forthcoming, they were still at the level of refugees because jobs are extremely important for them to be a part of society.”
He began offering work to the refugees and today 20% of his company’s workforce is composed of immigrants and refugees.
“I started hiring these newly settled refugees into our factories and I found out what magic was happening,” said Ulukaya. “The minute they started working, they stopped being a refugee.”