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How Can Companies Support Refugees in Europe?

21/10/2015 10:15 BST | Updated 20/10/2016 10:12 BST

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"Welcome Refugees" march, London, September 2015 (Photo: Eniko Horvath)

A company that provides materials for high-security fences is an unlikely candidate to take a firm stance for a more compassionate response to the refugee crisis. Yet, Berlin-based Mutanox did just this. When it was approached for razor sharp wire for Hungary's fence aiming to deter refugees on its border with Serbia, Mutanox's CEO refused the business deal citing that "Hungary is misusing the...wire. [Prime Minister] Orban takes it in stride that people could [be] hurt or even die from it".

Mutanox's resolute decision is a welcome show of compassionate leadership among a largely silent business community in Europe. While it is true that not all companies can make their stance clear in such a direct way, there are many other avenues open to companies that wish to use them. Yet, few are stepping up.

To date, only eight companies have submitted pledges to act in response to a call by the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Global Compact, primarily referring to donations as their key response to the crisis. Donations are very welcome, but they short-change the broader positive impact businesses can have on this issue.

In the past weeks, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre reached out to 35 companies for statements in support of a more welcoming environment for refugees. 15 have shared their positions. Based on these statements and other relevant actions, a few clear paths emerge on how companies can go beyond one-time donations to support refugees:

  • 1. Mobilising core business
  • Companies have various options to use their core business as a tool to respond to the crisis. This can include offering training and employment to refugees, but also adapting services and products companies specialise in to refugees' needs.

    For example, Deutsche Telekom is offering intern positions for refugees coordinated through a dedicated internal task force while BMW is offering an orientation employment for highly qualified refugees in association with the Federal Employment Agency.

    Total's CEO recently highlighted the responsibility of business to act on the crisis:

    "This refugee issue is not only governments' business. It is an issue that affects everyone, including big companies like ours...We are not only the producers of wealth, but also actors who must intervene in these kinds of situations."

    (Unofficial translation from original quote in French)

    Total committed to provide housing and professional training for 300 refugees.

    Several technology and communications firms are using their services to support refugees. For example, Deutsche Telekom, Facebook and Vodafone are providing wireless internet access for refugee camps and shelters. Meanwhile, software developer SAP has launched an app for refugees to facilitate registration.

  • 2. Calling for respectful societal and governmental action
  • Engaging with government to promote a more open environment for refugees makes business sense. Evidence from the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Migration shows that well-managed immigration "can contribute to economic growth, generate jobs, promote innovation, [and] increase competitiveness". Some private sector representatives have already expressed their support for a coordinated response to the current refugee crisis.

    For example, the German industry association (BDA) has been advocating for Germany to facilitate access for refugees to the labour market and to protect refugees from the threat of deportation after companies offer them training. MEDEF, France's largest employer federation, recently called for the French government to welcome refugees as it would make the French economy stronger.

    Unilever also emphasises the link between job creation for refugees and economic growth. In its statement, the company highlights that:

    "[T]he international community should be working together to identify ways for refugees to enter the formal labour market. Not only will this reduce demands on welfare systems and potential abuses of refugees, it will support economic growth and integration."

    Others, including SAP and Aviva are also calling on the international community to step up. While policy decisions are inevitably taken by political leaders, companies can reinforce to them that a compassionate approach is in line with business interests.

  • 3. Ensuring business does not support abuses through products, services & investments
  • Carrying out government policies on refugees requires support from business in the form of services and products. When approached with government requests, these firms have the opportunity to take a principled stance if their support could contribute to human rights abuses. Mutanox's example illustrates how a company can avoid being linked with harm to people through government policy. The company is not alone: another German firm reportedly refused the government's offer as well, stating: "children, caught in the wire, is a disgrace."

    Looking beyond Europe, Australia's offshore detention centres for asylum seekers have stirred controversy amidst reports of child sexual abuse, assault, and other human rights allegations. In this case, investors stepped up by withdrawing funds from Transfield Services, the company operating the infamous Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. In 2014, its former parent company Transfield Holdings sold all its 11.3% holding in Transfield Services. In 2015, a major Australian pension fund HESTA divested from the firm citing human rights abuses of asylum seekers and financial risk after meetings with rights groups. Transfield Services maintains that it "respect[s] human rights in every aspect of [its] operations." It remains to be seen whether investor withdrawals will improve the firms' human rights record.

    It is time for more companies to raise their voice in the refugee debate - as employers, investors, product and service providers, and above all, as powerful economic and societal actors. A more compassionate welcome for refugees is not only the right response to support, it also makes business sense.