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Helping today for a brighter tomorrow?

December 2015

How have the world’s corporates responded to the refugee crisis in Europe? And what role can business play anyway? Sangeeta Haindl reports

One topic has dominated headlines this year – the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s an issue that has been fiercely debated, influenced politics, challenged borders and affected humanity.

More than half a million people have made the journey to Europe. The United Nations (UN) says that more people have been forcibly displaced than at any time since World War Two.

This refugee crisis has sparked an international debate about human rights. As the media devotes greater attention to this humanitarian disaster, many feel compelled to do what they can to help - including global corporations - which have placed human rights higher on the business agenda, recognising that it is central to good corporate citizenship and to a healthy bottom line.

One of the most significant changes in the human rights debate is the increased recognition of the link between business and human rights. Businesses are increasingly focused on the impact they have on individuals, communities and the environment. Most companies recognise the moral imperative to operate consistently with human rights principles and that the respect for human rights can also be a tool for improving business performance.

The Guardian newspaper reports that the refugee crisis is bankrupting UN humanitarian agencies, leaving them unable to provide food and healthcare to millions of desperate people. The dwindling food provisions and medical attention are driving even more refugees to Europe, and creating a generation of children – those who survive – whose lives will be shaped by malnutrition, disease, psychological damage, lack of education and vulnerability to extremist groups. And while European countries have been bickering about quotas and borders, many well-known global brands have readily got involved.

Audi made €1m in emergency aid available for refugees. The car manufacturer has been shocked by the suffering of the refugees and wanted to offer help quickly and avoid as much red tape as possible. So, the money from the corporate donation flowed directly to the local aid projects at Audi production sites. It wants to show solidarity as well as practice social responsibility at its corporate sites. Audi General Works Council Chairman Peter Mosch said: “We must not and we will not stand passively by when it comes to helping our fellow human beings in this desperate situation. We Audi employees are always there to help when it’s important – and it’s more important now than ever before.”

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple emailed staff about his concerns for refugees in Europe, saying that the company was making a ‘substantial donation’ to humanitarian organisations working with suffering refugees.

Google is giving $1.1m to organisations that provide shelter, food, water, medical care and other essentials for people in need. The company has also been offering matching donations up to $5.5m.

Uber is offering to send drivers to collect donations of clothes and toys for charity Save the Children for free in 20 European countries.

There are many other stories, which are less prominent, yet very powerful showing this wave of positive support from companies becoming defenders of human rights.

In Germany, a country that has so far taken in more refugees than other European country, businesses are also taking stance. Mutanox, a Berlin-based fence company refused to sell razor-wire to the Hungarian government to complete a fence aimed at keeping refugees out of the country.

Mutanox was approached by representatives of Viktor Orban’s Hungarian government for razor-wire to complete a fence aimed at keeping refugees out of the company. However, the owner Talat De?er refused the commission, in spite knowing it would cost him around €500,000, claiming the government was “misusing” the wire.

Ulrich Grillo, head of the powerful BDI industry federation in Germany has noted: “If we can integrate refugees quickly into the jobs market, we’ll not only be helping the refugees, but also helping ourselves as well.”

The Confederation of British Industry and France’s MEDEF have yet to respond. Yet the benefits are clear; the refugees arriving are often young, well-educated, skilled and eager to integrate into society. They are a solution to ageing populations and come ready to work. By collaborating with the public sector, business can help to ensure that they get the training and jobs they need, plus they can also help to shape societal attitudes toward refugees.

This is a defining moment for the EU and its values of regional cooperation and the respect for human rights, which are under threat. It needs to come up with an approach based on collective action and refugee policy to share responsibility within Europe, supporting refugee protection globally. It is important that business protects the distinctive rights of refugees and that it safeguards the 1951 Convention.

What often goes overlooked is the fact that not all of these refugees will remain in Europe. One day, some will return to their homeland and when they do, they will have the skills needed to rebuild their own societies and economies, as well as provide stronger ties to the country where they sought refuge.

The importance of this investment in future state building, as well as business relationships, is vital, because investing in today’s refugees, could make all the difference in building tomorrow’s strong, stable trading partners. 

Europe | Human rights

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