By Khalid Koser
As Europe’s refugee crisis continues to evolve, offers of assistance have come from some unexpected places. Interventions by governments, civil-society groups, and aid organizations have been complemented by a broad-based response from the business community. This mobilization highlights not only the role that the private sector can play in managing migration, but also the importance of extending this engagement beyond the response to the immediate crisis.
Contributions have been made by companies large and small. Shop owners have provided refugees with free food and clothing, and local transport firms have helped people move across borders. On the corporate level, FedEx, JPMorgan Chase, and Google have all made direct contributions of more than $1 million to humanitarian organizations. American Express and Daimler are matching their employees’ donations, Western Union is offering ten cents per transaction made by consumers in the European Union, and Norwegian Air has raised money through inflight collections.
Meanwhile, the Bayern Munich Football Club has opened a training camp for refugees, and Siemens has launched a traineeship program in Germany for asylum-seekers.
On the web, Facebook is connecting asylum-seekers with members of their diaspora, as well as citizens who want to help, and a program called “Refugees Welcome” is helping refugees find vacant rooms in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Poland, Greece, Sweden, and the Netherlands. In France, an Amazon wish list has been established to allow people to purchase goods for refugees (portable fuel packs and warm boots are the items most in demand).
The private sector’s response to the refugee crisis has helped efforts to address it in three important ways. For starters, the business community has generally proved faster and more flexible than governments. On the whole, the private sector is not encumbered by political constraints or bureaucracy that can impede government action. And many companies are organized to move quickly in response to market opportunities – or in this case a humanitarian emergency.
Second, the business community has filled a gap in the response that the public sector risked overlooking. The international community has been focused on immediate humanitarian relief –rightly so. But the current crisis also has an economic component: in many cases, it represents a business opportunity, as new arrivals offer their talents and knowledge to forward-thinking firms. As a result, it is not just corporate social-responsibility departments that are driving companies’ response.
Finally, the business community’s reaction has underscored the long-term advantages of migration, something that politicians in fear of (or in thrall to) xenophobic currents have struggled to accomplish. The private sector’s enthusiastic involvement helps make the case for the bright side of the refugee influx: it can help close Europe’s demographic deficit, plug gaps in its labor market, and supply a cohort of young workers and taxpayers for the future.
But while the private sector’s involvement is to be applauded, its impact will be limited if it is not extended beyond the current emergency. Like governments, the business community rallied in a meaningful fashion only after large numbers of refugees began arriving on European shores. The private sector must not overlook the role it can play in helping to stabilize and support economic growth in the countries from which refugees flee.
Furthermore, there are far more Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey than in Europe, and many of the innovative responses now emerging in Europe would have a greater impact (and larger returns on investment) if they were concentrated where most refugees reside.
Above all, businesses must ensure that their current efforts are sustained into the future. The programs companies have put in place will bear long-term fruit only if they are seen through to the end. Firms must prepare for the decline in public goodwill that is likely to occur as efforts to integrate the newcomers hit inevitable obstacles. Local spikes in unemployment, temporary pressure on education and health services, incidents of criminality, and hints of radicalization could spark a backlash in the media and among shareholders. Business leaders must help keep a clear, public focus on the long-term benefits of immigration through statements, media engagement, and direct lobbying of government officials.
The lesson from Europe’s refugee crisis is clear: all aspects of migration are better managed when businesses, civil society, and governments work together. As the crisis continues to unfold, sustaining and deepening this cooperation – in Europe and elsewhere – will be both a challenge and an historic opportunity.