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How Business Can Support Refugees

How Business Can Support Refugees

Dominique Hyde, Director of External Relations at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, talks to our Editor in Chief Hannah Finch about the impact that business can have on the humanitarian refugee crisis.
Dominique Hyde on her visit to Renk, South Sudan
© UNHCR/Ala Kheir
19th Jun 2024

The refugee crisis is ever growing: 120 million people globally have been forcibly displaced, up from over 80 million in 2020. UNHCR is a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights, and building a better future for people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution. Dominique Hyde, Director of External Relations at UNHCR, explains common misconceptions about refugees, how the business world can support humanitarian aid and make a meaningful impact, and what keeps her hopeful.

HF: Tell me about the humanitarian crises impacting refugees in 2024.

DH: After the second world war, the office of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was created to support the millions of European refugees who had fled or lost their homes, especially in the fallout from the war. It was only meant to last three years, but over 70 years later, we’re still here.

We’ve seen a rapid rise in the number of people who are forcibly displaced. This year it reached 120 million, up from just over 80 million three years earlier. You can no longer say, “That’s not my problem, it’s for others to worry about.” If we look at the war in Ukraine, it hasn’t just impacted one country; it affects neighbouring countries, the US, Canada and its diaspora.

 “We’ve seen a rapid rise in the number of people who are forcibly displaced. This year it reached 120 million, up from just over 80 million three years earlier.”

Dominique Hyde

We witnessed a moment of extraordinary global solidarity during the peak of the Ukraine war. This spirit of unity and compassion should extend to all, regardless of their origin – be it Ukraine, South Sudan, Colombia or Myanmar. It is this collective support that can truly make a difference in the lives of refugees.

HF: How does the media’s portrayal of refugees influence public perception, and what role does it play in shaping public opinion?

DH: There is a correlation between the media’s engagement in a humanitarian crisis and the support a country receives. For instance, we saw an incredible push from the private sector in 2022 that resulted in over a billion dollars in funding for Ukraine. This was an unprecedented amount of support.

The media has the power to positively shape people’s perceptions of refugees by highlighting the severity of the crisis while also showcasing the acts of kindness that give us hope. However, we also know that the media can amplify negative messages of xenophobia and fear-mongering.

Dominique Hyde meets a widowed 30-year-old South Sudanese refugee in Ngota camp, near Aru in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mother-of-five provides for her children by selling produce that she grows on her plot of land.
© UNHCR/Guerchom Ndebo

HF: What are some common misconceptions that people have about refugees?

DH: The definition of refugee is distinct from migrant – the latter chooses to leave their country for job opportunities, work or education. A refugee is protected under the 1951 Convention on Refugees; it is someone who flees across borders because of persecution, conflict, violence, war or serious human rights violations. One of the hardest decisions somebody can make is to leave their job, home and family behind. These people have no choice but to flee.

Another common misconception is that a huge number of refugees are coming to Europe or the US, “stealing our jobs.” The truth is that 75% of refugees live in low and middle-income countries, and the majority move to neighbouring countries.

HF: Can you talk about the work that businesses you’re partnered with are doing to support refugees?

DH: During my visit to the UNIQLO flagship store in Tokyo, I met some of the refugees they had hired. UNIQLO transformed their lives, not just by providing jobs, but also by helping them learn the local language and integrate into the community. This is a global initiative by UNIQLO that raises awareness for our cause. Such partnerships bring in expertise in marketing and advocacy that the UN does not have, making our message stronger and more impactful.

 “One of the hardest decisions somebody can make is to leave their job, home and family behind. These people have no choice but to flee.”

Dominique Hyde

We also work with Ingka Group, the company operating most IKEA stores. Last year, Ingka group (IKEA) trained close to 3,000 asylum seekers to find jobs inside and outside of IKEA. Some 54% of those trained found jobs, not just within IKEA but also in other businesses. The company has recently committed to creating an additional 3,000 long-term jobs for refugees and asylum seekers by the end of 2027.

HF: Why is it so important for you to collaborate with organisations?

DH: We look for innovation in our business partnerships. We know how to provide lifesaving support in emergencies – shelter, water, sanitation, food and protection – but we don’t always have the latest innovations and expertise.

For example, our partnership with Vodafone Foundation was instrumental in providing connected education for refugee children. The number of refugee children without access to education is ever increasing. We worked with Vodafone Foundation to install Instant Network Schools in refugee and host community classrooms, which are pop-up school kits with internet connectivity, sustainable solar power, a laptop, tablets, projectors and speakers, transforming classrooms into multimedia hubs. This initiative reached over 270,000 students in six African countries, allowing children to access education where they couldn’t before, especially during the pandemic.

Vodafone Foundation, Egypt. Refugee and host community Instant Network School students participate in class. © UNHCR/Pedro Costa Gomes

HF: What role can business leaders play in supporting refugees, and why might they choose to partner with UNHCR?

DH: I asked the director-general of FC Barcelona Foundation, one of our partners, why they chose UNHCR. They said they wanted to partner with an organisation that understands what it is to struggle and fight for a cause. They felt that while there are easier issues to advocate for, they wanted to support a cause that desperately needs advocates.

“We look for innovation in our business partnerships. We know how to provide lifesaving support in emergencies – shelter, water, sanitation, food and protection – but we don’t always have the latest innovations and expertise.”

Dominique Hyde

Through them, we’ve been able to help a community that’s often forgotten: adolescents and youth. Sport is an incredible way to connect with young people – FC Barcelona Foundation has provided us with funding and in-kind contributions, including sports equipment and technical expertise to help displaced youth access sports around the world. The players and fans wear our logo on their kits. That visibility means a lot to us; we hope it sparks discussion so more people are exposed to our cause.

HF: Tell us a story about a refugee that has moved you.

DH: A year ago, I met a woman named Winnie. She was from South Sudan and fled the conflict to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world. Her husband died during their journey, leaving her as a refugee alone with her children.

The government welcomed them, and UNHCR supported their arrival, helped build homes for them, provided water and sanitation, and assisted with documentation. However, what happens when lots of refugees arrive is they can begin to strain the land and environment. Therefore, the project we implemented with Winnie was to help grow the trees back and cultivate local vegetables and small poultry to help her family survive and thrive. Winnie could sell a portion of her produce, her children could attend a school, and her work positively impacted malnutrition rates.

HF: How else does UNHCR support refugees with employment?

DH: Another example is our brand, MADE51. It provides employment opportunities for refugees and displaced people to create products and gifts, bringing their craftsmanship, local materials, and artistry to the rest of the world. One example is the beautiful beaded purse straps, a cultural speciality in South Sudan – these were made by Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees hosted in South Sudan and sold to high-end retailer partners.

Keyrings made by community artisans for UNIQLO © Made51

It’s fascinating to see how this changed people’s lives, especially women in South Sudan, who suddenly had money to buy clothes, better food and send their children to school – the number one desire for the women I meet across many countries.

HF: How do you stay hopeful?

DH: You can’t be in the business I’m in without having hope. One of the magical things is that as I travel across the world, I meet women, men and children who give me hope. We think it’s important to celebrate unsung heroes for their outstanding work helping refugees, which is why we have the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award. Last year, the winner of this award was Abdullahi Mire, a refugee from Somalia to Kenya. He distributed 100,000 books to children in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps and set up three libraries.

“You can’t be in the business I’m in without having hope.”

I also recently learned about an adolescent we had supported from Mauritania. After fleeing conflict in Mali, we provided him with a scholarship so he could pursue his degree. Instead of accepting a job offer from a high-end company, he returned to the refugee camp he grew up in to give back to his community.

I find hope in the individuals we help and their stories. We need these acts of kindness. When businesses, governments and UNHCR collaborate, and individuals feel safe and protected, it reaffirms my belief in our cause.