By Grace Donnelly
September 29, 2017

As the world tries to house and care for a refugee population larger than the record set in World War II — some 65 million people have been forcibly displaced, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees — the cap on the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the U.S. is the lowest it’s been since 1980. What’s more, the White House plans to lower the refugee cap again next year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While the federal government takes a less active role in helping the victims of humanitarian crises, the Center for Global Development is highlighting a few companies have taken steps to help the one in 122 people that are displaced or seeking asylum.

The CGD is a D.C.-based think tank focused on policies to reduce global poverty and inequality. They released the report along with the Tent Foundation, an organization that works to improve the situations of refugees around the world through direct assistance as well as policies and partnerships.

Hire refugees

Access to safe and decent employment is a major barrier to self-sufficiency for displaced populations, according to the CGD report.

In January, on the heels of the White House’s travel ban announcement, Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years. As part of their efforts, the company partnered with UNHCR as well as the International Rescue Committee and the Tent Foundation. The company has spotlighted refugees-turned-new hires from Burma and Iraq, and said it plans to continue to focus on hiring displaced people who worked as translators or support people for the U.S. armed forces.

“We have a long history of hiring young people looking for opportunities and a pathway to a new life around the world,” Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, wrote in a memo to employees at the time of the announcement. “This is why we are doubling down on this commitment by working with our equity market employees as well as joint venture and licensed market partners in a concerted effort to welcome and seek opportunities for those fleeing war, violence, persecution and discrimination.”

Though the company faced a backlash for the decision, Starbucks said it hasn’t see any long-term damage to its brand for making a significant effort to employ refugees.

While some organizations may not be able to employ many refugees directly, companies can also look for ways to include refugee-owned businesses in their supply chains.

The Jordanian branch of Safeway, Inc. worked with USAID to start doing business with local Syrian-owned companies. The Safeway stores in the region are now a source of employment opportunities for both Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees, says CGD.

Invest in and buy from refugee-owned businesses

While the UN refugee agency reported a $3.1 billion budget gap just to meet the basic needs of refugees last year, there’s a significantly larger shortfall for getting these populations set up to support themselves.

“Global investment firms can improve refugee livelihoods and achieve financial returns by investing in companies that hire and source from refugees, refugee-owned small and medium-sized enterprises, social enterprises, and development impact bonds,” the CGD report says.

The report also points out that refugee populations often bring new skill-sets with them into the areas where they resettle. Companies interested in getting started with this kind of investing can use political risk insurance and loan guarantees to mitigate risk, said the CGD.

Tailor products and services for refugees

Companies can also engage with refugees as customers, the CGD report says.

For example, Airbnb created an Open Homes platform, which helps connect refugees looking for a place to stay with hosts willing to house them for free. The program, which launched in the U.S., Canada, and Greece in June, has already expanded to France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, according to Airbnb. Hosts from Dallas to Denver have shared what it’s like opening their homes to displaced families on the company’s website.

“We realize that facilitating temporary housing for 100,000 vulnerable people within five years is an ambitious goal, but we are confident it is absolutely achievable if we work together,” Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia wrote about the initiative. “After all, every single time we’ve asked our community to open their doors and hearts to help others, they have more than exceeded our expectations.”

Companies have also worked with local groups to modify their existing products to solve problems for refugees. Mastercard partnered with aid organizations to develop digital vouchers, prepaid debit cards, and mobile fund distribution networks that allow refugees to access their financial products.

“Over several years, we’ve applied our thinking and technology to help hundreds of millions connect to the formal economy and to help empower safer and more efficient aid distribution,” said Ajay Banga, president and CEO of Mastercard. “We can have transformational impact by scaling our business-driven organization to leverage innovation, on-the-ground experience and long-term capital investments.”

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