Business and the European refugee crisis

The recent media coverage of the mass of people arriving on European shores and borders has brought home for many the impact of the humanitarian crisis that has been building in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and many other countries for years, writes Sue Adkins, International Director, Business in the Community.

The poignant photo of the body of three year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian Kurdish boy, washed up on the shore in Turkey, bought into sharp relief the nature of this humanitarian crisis.

According to the United Nations there are 14.4 million "refugees of concern" across the world1. Over 380,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Europe by sea so far in 2015, compared to around 210,000 in 20142, with over 2,800 people dying or going missing this year. 72% of the arrivals in 2015 are men, 13% are women and 15% are children3. The recent influx of asylum seekers into Europe numbers 160,0004.

Witnessing the plight of so many, ordinary members of the public are taking action into their own hands, and responding to the human need on display. By doing things such as collecting people from the borders, providing food and blankets, and even taking refugees into their own homes, the public is, perhaps, shaming governments into action.

Across Europe, countries are beginning to mobilise, of necessity and through public pressure.  However, the situation is fluid and confusing, with borders opening and closing within a week or even few days. 

With 3,000 refugees crossing from its territory to Austria on one day5, and 4,000 crossing into it from Serbia on another, Hungary has built a 110 mile fence along its border with Serbia and is drafting laws to punish those breaching it. Having opened its borders, Germany saw more than 10,000 people flood into Munich6 for two weekends in a row7, and has now closed its borders again to attempt to stem the flow.

What can business do?

Clearly, as has been covered through the media, communities and businesses have been impacted by the unprecedented influx of people. Local government and communities are taking action arranging places for refugees to stay in the short term, and providing other support and services. Business have also begun to mobilise, reacting to the humanitarian crisis.

Many companies including BT, GSK, Goldman Sachs, Linklaters and others have made financial donations to support humanitarian partners in order to provide immediate assistance to refugees arriving in Europe. 

Other companies like Unilever and UPS are using their core business capacities to facilitate an immediate response and have provided product and service donations as well as facilitating employee donations to support charity partners and appeals.

The legal sector has also reached out, with firms such as Linklaters extending pro bono legal support to organisations supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

Another way that businesses, including PwC have mobilised is through support for community integration through cultural events, sports programmes, and language lessons. Others have provided information to refugees to help them find their ways around new cities - German newspapers have published Arabic language guides for refugees and BVG, Berlin’s public transport network has published Arabic language versions of its rail map, main underground stations and essential public transport information with the help of a Syrian asylum seeker.

Businesses are also looking to the long term. Anyone given refugee status in the UK will also have a National Insurance number, and is permitted to work at any skill level.  The 20,000 Syrians that Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to accept in the UK over the next five years will be given humanitarian protection status as refugees, and will therefore have the right to work.8

Given the challenges in some markets of finding employees with appropriate skills and experience, the presence of  refugees, who may be high skilled and have the right to work, gives business both a role and opportunity.

As Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Mercedes said:  “Most refugees are young, well-educated and highly motivated – they are exactly the people we need... They could, like the guest workers from decades ago, help us preserve and improve our prosperity. For Germany cannot anymore fill the jobs available only with Germans.”9

Siemens and Daimler have joined Mercedes in pledging jobs and training for refugees.  Football club Bayern Munich, meanwhile, is investing more than $1million in a training camp for new players drawn from young Middle Eastern and African refugees. 

Allied to this is the similarly long term approach of offering training and employability schemes, supported by companies including Siemens and the partners of BITC’s national Ready for Work programme.  This programme supports some of society's most disadvantaged people in entering employment, and works with a number of refugee support agencies -  around 10% of the clients it supports are refugees. Over 150 businesses are involved in supporting Ready for Work participants, including offering training, work placements and one-to-one support.  In return they benefit from cost-effective recruitment, stronger community links and personal development opportunities for employees.

Another example of businesses and refugees working together to mutal benefit is the social enterprise Transitions, which is receiving support from BITC's arc programme.  A recruitment service, Transitions aims to provide refugees with professional abilities with fulfiling employment, connecting them to employers seeking their valuable skills.  Businesses it works with include National Grid, Crossrail and Arup, and it has successfully placed refugees with accountancy,architecture, engineering and IT skills into work.  

"A lot of employers have said, ‘We had no idea there’s this talent pool’. Many businesses value the knowledge of international practice that refugees can bring,” says Sheila Heard, CEO, Transitions.  “Unfortunately, many employers don’t know what refugee status means, and imagine there’s a lot of hassle involved in taking someone on, but it’s very straightforward – if someone has refugee status there are no points-based restrictions.”10

The public, local communities and government are gearing up to tackle this humanitarian catastrophe.  Now the question is not if business can support refugees in this crisis, but how?

Business in the Community invites businesses to join us on the 22 September to explore the role business can play, discuss ideas and  encourage action.  We do you hope you will be able to join us.

1. The Business Times 9 September 2015

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. The Times 6 September 2015

5. International Business Times 9 September 2015

6. The Independent 13 September 2015

7. The Times 7 September 2015

8. The Guardian 11 September 2015

9. The Sunday Times 13 September 2015 

10. The Guardian 11 September 2015