Companies are working in opposition to Trump’s attempts to limit refugees entering the US, but many feel they have to tread carefully

One year has made a huge difference in the official US response to the global refugee crisis, the largest displacement of people through violent conflict since the Second World War.  Last June, former President Obama issued a Call to Action, inviting the US private sector to make significant commitments in education, employment and enablement to refugees living in countries on the frontlines, and resettling to counties like the US.  By September, 50 leading companies had signed the pledge. 

This was put in jeopardy, however, with the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House.

Early this year the Trump Administration issued an executive order banning travellers from seven mostly-Muslim countries, a 120-day moratorium on refugee resettlement and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. A revised version, issued in March, took Iraq off the list and, while still halting refugee resettlement, took Syria off the banned list.  The travel ban has since been halted, ruled illegal by two separate federal appeals courts, though on different grounds.

In the wake of the original travel ban, 80 US companies signed an open letter to the president calling on him to “uphold refugee and immigration policies that affirm the equal opportunity of the American Dream,” noted John Kluge, co-founder of Alight Fund, a for-profit investment fund that invests in refugee and host-country entrepreneurs.  

According to the Pew Center, refugees make up only one in 10 of the one million immigrants granted legal residency each year in the United States. The open letter to Trump noted that 40% of all Fortune 500 companies in the United States were founded by refugees, immigrants or their children and that the US lags behind other countries in attracting global talent.

Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America vice-president for policy and campaigns, says knowledge-based and expertise companies, which rely on a global talent pool, are  worried about arbitrary or coercive migration policies that could make them less competitive in the global marketplace. 

Kluge said the private sector is trying to compensate by taking a leadership role in responding to the refugee crisis. “As entrepreneurs and stewards of business, we know that immigrants and refugees create economic and social value for our communities and firms,” he said. “If one thing has become clear it is that we can no longer depend on the White House for sound judgement. The private sector understands this and is stepping up to lead where the administration will not.” 

Public advocacy

Alight Fund and Kiva, a San Francisco-based microfinance non-profit, chose World Refugee Day on 20 June to launch a crowdfunding loan platform, called the World Refugee Fund, to aid refugees. The fund will launch with $500,000 in loan requests, which they hope to fund through a combination of individual donations and $250,000 in matching corporate grants. The long-term goal is to crowdfund $2.9m in loans to refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and host communities by the end of 2017. It also expects to deploy $6.5m to host communities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. 

Eighty US companies signed an open letter to the president opposing the travel ban (credit: Rena Schild)

Earlier this month San Francisco-based Airbnb launched Open Homes, a programme that will allow people to host refugees and evacuees for free by matching hosts with aid organisations. Meanwhile Seattle-based Starbucks has pledged to hire 10,000 refugees in the 75 countries it does business in while LinkedIn debuted its Welcome Talent refugee programme in the United States, partnering with the International Refugee Committee to create 30 empowerment programmes across the country.  

However, O’Brien said that many of the companies Oxfam has been advising are also worried that the rules of the influencing game are changing and that public advocacy can mean unwanted exposure. 

“If you have a president who can attack the company with a tweet that can affect the stock price, it changes their appetite for public discourse,” he said.  

Indeed, when Starbucks announced that it would hire 10,000 refugees in response to Trump’s ban, #BoycottStarbucks became a huge Twitter trend. There were calls to boycott Chobani yogurt when it was perceived that its owner, Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent, hired too many refugees (300, to be exact). Ulukaya founded the Tent Foundation in early 2016, which absorbed the federal Partnership for Refugees in the waning days of the Obama Administration, becoming the private Tent Partnership for Refugees.  

Long-term stability

The volatile public reaction means many companies are turning to quiet advocacy and talking to each other, said O’Brien. Within the Tent Partnership for Refugees, which saw its ranks rise from 10 members to more than 70 since early 2016 – members have spent the year deepening relationships “to convert last year’s momentum [through Obama’s Call to Action] into even greater impact,” the Tent Foundation said in a statement. “This includes work in critical areas ranging from financial inclusion and education, to unemployment and direct relief, among others.” 

Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, (centre) at the World Economic Forum in Davos

So far, according to Jessica Feingold, a senior development manager at Kiva, most of the responses to the refugee crisis worldwide have taken the form of humanitarian relief, which helps with immediate needs. “However, there are ongoing challenges, including long-term economic stability both for individual refugees and their families, as well as host communities,” she said, noting that these needs are the impetus for the World Refugee Fund.

Financial service providers and microfinance institutions, for example, see lending to refugees or internally displaced people as too risky a proposal, due to perceived flight risks, lack of credit history, no assets or collateral and other factors, she said. Kiva expects its crowdfunding capital to allow lenders to use the Fund’s capital to serve refugees, but also to “show the financial industry that refugees and IDPs can and will repay loans,” establishing a positive track record, she said. 

Kevin Meadowcroft, senior programme manager of the International Rescue Committee office in Baltimore, Maryland said that since October the Baltimore IRC office has resettled 500 refugees and found work for some 200 among them. His office tends to work with about 100 businesses, most of them small, which reflects the fact that most Americans work for small companies. 

‘Hyper-partisan’ work

The benefit to those smaller businesses is less turnover in the usually high-turnover lower-skilled jobs bracket. Meadowcroft notes that refugees “don’t have a lot of choice and it takes them longer to get established” in their new environments, even if they were well-qualified in their own countries. “The US resettlement programme is ‘welcome here, now get a job’.”  

Rawia, a Syrian refugee working at the IRC office in Baltimore (credit: Allison Zaucha)

Since Trump took office, and issues like the travel and refugee ban hit the 24-hour news cycle, the IRC in Baltimore has seen an uptick in businesses signing on to the jobs programme, and being more willing to be mentioned publicly, said Meadowcroft. For example, he noted that after Ulukayawas featured on the TV news magazine 60 Minutes in early April, his office got a lot of calls from local businesses. They now have more jobs than they can fill.  

“Traditionally, our work has been bipartisan and below the radar. But lately it’s been above the radar and hyper-partisan,” said Meadowcroft, noting that because the IRC is well-known, opportunities come to them. “It sort of elicits a public discussion …. But I would rather have more refugees come and find safety here than have more visibility. I would love to have both, of course, but if I could only have one, it would be the former.” 

Before Trump – and before Brexit, and before the failure to deal with Syria – O’Brien believes the global private sector was headed toward a world of empowered consumers and citizens, a more level playing field and a race to the top. The current climate is a hiccup. 

“I believe this is the last lurch of authoritarian deregulation,” he said. “In the end of the day, we can’t build enough walls …. If you’re not prepared for an increasingly transparent global economy driven by informed consumers, you’re not going to be competitive in the coming years.” 

This is part of Ethical Corporation's briefing on the corporate response to the refugee crisis. See also:

Refugee crisis: What the West gains from a warm welcome

Refugee crisis: IKEA at heart of Swedish response

Refugee crisis: German firms heed Merkel's plea for help

Refugee crisis: The firms going to heart of the problem in Jordan

Human rights  Tent Foundation  Trump travel ban  Alight Fund  Kiva  Airbnb  IRC  Starbucks  Oxfam  World Refugee Fund 

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