In celebration of World Refugee Day, Concordia hosted a set of Strategic Dialogues, including one in partnership with UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency to examine the role of private sector partnerships in support of refugee communities on a global scale, as well as one in partnership with the Refugee Congress and Refugee Council USA to identify levers of influence for local, state, and federal U.S. asylum and resettlement policy. These in-depth, collaborative dialogues convened high-level decision-makers from the public, private, and civil society spaces and engaged representatives of the global refugee community for a candid discussion on what’s working, and what’s not. Concordia and its partners are committed to amplifying calls to action and next steps on World Refugee Day and every day.
Concordia has a history of Strategic Dialogue programming on the role of the private sector and local elected officials in shaping policies and processes to support socio-economic integration. Many of the best practices learned through these multi-year programming sets in terms of community engagement, refugee empowerment, and local responses are all the more critical in light of the current crisis facing the global community.
Based on the latest figures published in its Global Trends Report 2019, the UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency cites unprecedented global numbers of displacement, with 79.5 million displaced worldwide at the end of 2019. Displaced populations come primarily from five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements also cited that this displacement was too often generational: “They’re displacements for a lifetime or a generation.” This tragedy has been compounded by COVID-19, which is creating an “emergency on top of an emergency,” according to Clements. And while the discussions uncovered many process and policy points that must be addressed to more adequately respond to the refugee crisis, both dialogues uncovered silver linings as well; more than ever before, there are partnerships taking the lead to design more equitable and sustainable responses that position empowered refugees at the center of their design.
Concordia, Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative, the International Organization for Migration, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with the support of the Open Society Foundations and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, hosted a series of high-level interactive discussions on the private sector’s role and responsibility in addressing global migration challenges and the current refugee crisis.
Concordia, the Open Society Foundations, and Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative partnered to highlight the role of partnerships, including city networks and public-private partnerships, in advancing the goals established by cities to comprehensively address the global migration challenge.
Driven by conflict, violence, persecution, and human rights violations, forced displacement numbers have largely increased over the years. While worldwide NGO and governmental initiatives have played a substantial role in providing relief to refugees and other displaced populations, more long-term and financially-sustainable solutions are needed to alleviate the effects of forced displacement and foster economic inclusion of vulnerable populations. Under the shadow of today’s global COVID-19 pandemic, private sector engagement and cross-sector partnership is imperative. The backbone of those partnerships must be the needs of refugees themselves—particularly in terms of sharing their experiences and shaping actions that go on to generate the most impact.
Since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, refugees have had a powerful and positive role in supporting their host communities during this unprecedented time of crisis: refugee doctors and nurses have volunteered to help tend to the sick, other refugees are making masks or soap to stop the spread of the virus, while others have raised their voice to share positive messages about refugees to counter harmful xenophobia and prejudice. Shadi Alshhadeh, a Syrian-born refugee currently living in Switzerland, joined the Strategic Dialogue and spoke about his initiative in Geneva, where he rallied a group of Syrian refugees to buy and deliver groceries and other necessary items to persons in need. During the Dialogue, he said that this initiative is not so much about ‘giving back’ but more about belonging and feeling part of a community. For Alshhadeh, these acts of caring are proof of the power of integration: “They are acts of responsibility and solidarity: responsibility toward our host communities, to which we feel that we belong now, and solidarity with our fellow humans”. He went on to raise a word of caution about referring to refugees as ‘vulnerable populations’. Alshhadeh highlighted that refugees are vulnerable only because their sources of empowerment—belonging, employment, physical security, education, networking—have been ripped from them or are more difficult to access. By returning to a community, even if not in their original home country, a refugee can begin to reclaim his or her empowerment. Employment is a powerful way to be part of a social community and network, and is a root area for progress, according to Alshhadeh. This Strategic Dialogue, hosted in partnership with UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency, centered on the positive role of public-private partnerships in supporting refugees during COVID-19 and beyond. It explicitly sought to explore the role of the private sector beyond solely employment, although it did center on building in the concept of ‘empowerment’ throughout all partnership design.
An area critical for community belonging and long-term workforce integration is education. However, for displaced persons around the world, education is disrupted. The additional challenges brought on by COVID-19, including funding and halting in-person gatherings, has put traditional education at risk for millions of refugee youth around the world. Only 3% of aid goes to education, with just a fraction dedicated to early education, according to Sherri Westin, President of Global Impact & Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop. And history shows that, even when classes resume, key demographics—girls and those at the lowest poverty levels—are less likely to return. To circumvent re-entry challenges, groups like Save the Children, Sesame Workshop, and the LEGO Foundation are leveraging low-tech partnerships to minimize disruption and keep kids ‘in’ school. From designing curriculum that can leverage TV and radio, to working with educators to enable homework submissions via WhatsApp and designing digital toolkits to support locally-implemented trauma care and resilience programs, organizations around the world are thinking creatively about how to maintain education during the pandemic.
“International commitment for refugee assistance needs local and global, private and public in order to succeed.”
Shadi Alshhadeh, Refugee Advocate
The urgent health and safety needs compounded by COVID-19 have resulted in an increase in partnerships for established players to leverage, both in increased commitment in the form of expertise, skills, and funding from existing partners and through the entrance of new organizations into the arena. But the new interest in supporting vulnerable populations should not contribute to coordination challenges, duplicative behavior, or uninformed impact strategy. Speakers noted the importance of rooting partnerships in core competencies and orienting efforts around the respective strengths or capabilities of partnering entities. For example, Unilever and Unilever brand Lifebuoy has partnered with UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency and donated 40 million bars of soap and utilized supply chains and on-the-ground networks to expand its distribution supply. Sesame Workshop has worked with local partners, religious institutions, and parents to empower the community through its WASH curriculum. It has also partnered explicitly with the International Rescue Committee to enhance its on-the-ground knowledge of refugee needs. Dr. Nadia Bastaki, Vice President of Medical Services at Etihad, said “It’s critical that businesses understand their core values and push them in a matter of crisis”, as the airline leveraged its logistics network to distribute life-saving PPE supplies, as well as expanded its country footprint to countries demonstrating acute need. Etihad has also supported UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency’s COVID-19 response and other programs through donations as well as advocacy, using their channels to engage the public and raise awareness and funds for the benefit of forcibly-displaced persons. Each of these initiatives relied on what the company or organization already knew to do, and scaled its impact through partnerships.
Given the current displacement trends, and the challenges ahead to deal with the effects of the pandemic in fragile countries, the solution lies in further collaboration to continue developing innovative solutions that address the needs of refugees and their host communities and empower them to build better futures.
TAKE ONE STEP
In 2020, the U.S. authorized the resettlement of 18,000 refugees, the lowest number in the 40-year history of the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1970. This is down by nearly half of 2019’s authorization of 30,000 persons, and less than a fifth of the historic average of 95,000. More concerning still, as of World Refugee Day, and with only three months left in the fiscal year, less than 8,000 refugees have actually been resettled. At the same time, COVID-19 has added to drivers of displacement and the need for global resettlement. This Strategic Dialogue, held in partnership with the Refugee Congress and Refugee Council USA, centered on the role of local, state, and national policy to support refugee and asylum seekers in the U.S., and focused on bipartisan actions that individuals and organizations can take.
“The consequences of inaction are dire; local governments and state governments need to act because these are people’s lives.”
Jen Smyers, Director of Policy & Advocacy, Immigration and Refugee Program (Church World Service)
COVID-19 has exacerbated an already-dire situation for asylum seekers in the U.S. Bosnian refugee turned Arizona grassroots activist Nejra Sumic shared that 75-90% of recent refugees have experienced severe economic hardship due to COVID-19, either through direct job loss or a significant cut in hours. However, they lack access to the same social safety net and economic reprieve, either due to gaps in unemployment coverage, language barriers, or the inability to meet requirements for stimulus benefits. More robust legislature supporting this population, and improved transparency and accessibility (through translation services, for example), would improve this. Due to these obstacles, refugees would traditionally turn to refugee organizations or faith-based organizations; both institution sets, however, were spread tremendously thin pre-COVID-19 and are now facing depleting reserves. Arizona State Representative Athena Salman shared additional context, citing a lack of reliable and timely data upon which to set social safety net programs, like Medicaid; in Arizona, they are basing allotments using 1992 data, leading to flawed execution and inadequate coverage. According to Representative Salman, “COVID-19 is showing the cracks not only in healthcare options, but unemployment benefits […] We need to bring our standards up to that of 2020 and re-envision a brighter future.”
The ‘brighter future’ referenced by Representative Salman calls for structural change. Discussants identified several meaningful policy changes at the local, state, and national level: at the national level, there was a bipartisan call to increase the numbers of resettled persons. One piece of legislation currently in the U.S. House of Representatives is the Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement Act, or GRACE Act, which seeks to set a minimum annual goal of resettlement with a return to historical volume. The current law dictates that the number of refugees admitted may not exceed 50,000 persons without a direct determination by the president. A more localized change is to increase the number of Welcome Cities across the country. Welcoming Cities exhibit policies and processes rooted in inclusion and integration, including setting up volunteer programs, using multiple languages for official communications (like on driving licenses and public ID forms), establishing partnerships to support jobs training and placement, and engaging refugees in public fora.
Speakers found hope in progress already achieved, and suggested scaling what was working at bipartisan levels. To build bipartisan support, Reynoldsburg City Councilperson Bhuwan Pyakure stressed the power of numbers and data. He encouraged studies to uncover the contribution of refugees to local economies, citing a recent study by Columbus, Ohio, that found the local contribution to be $1.6 billion in one year. Creating connections and dispelling negative stereotypes about refugees is also essential to building bipartisan support. Easing access to medical re-licensure and re-certification could help reinforce a narrative that refugees contribute to the health and wellbeing of our communities, and acknowledging the critical role of refugees in key industries across rural communities—like meatpacking, farming, and energy production—links refugees to our national economic resiliency and community cohesion. Telling stories and creating human connections can remind Americans of their own past and history of immigration, and Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley, Director of the Disciples Refugee & Immigration Ministries to The Christian Church, spoke to leveraging faith leaders and congregants in this process, as faith-based institutions represent bipartisan belonging. Finally, sharing accurate numbers and information about our current resettlement figures can help dispel misinformation, particularly during periods of unemployment and economic strain.
Speakers emphasized that bipartisan support does already exist; Smyers acknowledged 43 governors (19 of which are Republican) and 100 local officials who all called for increased resettlement in the past year. There has also been bipartisan support commemorating the 1983 Refugee Act as well as letters holding the Administration accountable for reaching the 18,000 resettlement commitment in 2020.
Scaling progress requires political will and individual support, at the polls and year round. Chairwoman emeritus of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen spoke of the power of testimonials, and how grassroots-trained refugees can “move mountains” at the local and national level. Sumic and moderator Dauda Sesay, a refugee from Sierra Leone who now lives in Louisiana, emphasized the importance of grassroots training by entities like Refugee Congress to help create channels of communication and education. Civic participation in local, state, and national elections is key, but so too is participating year round in forums like city council and school board meetings, as these public spaces influence a community’s approach to integrating refugees. Many agreed that the power of community was essential to humanizing refugees and de-politicizing the discussion, as refugee integration supports us all.