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Refugees and the Private Sector Opportunity

Two-thirds of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants will suffer protracted displacement, often in host countries where they find themselves locked out of the job market because their skills are misaligned, ignored or unwanted. This waste of talent and ability has a significant negative impact on both refugees and local economies.

However, forward-thinking businesses are using innovative solutions that empower and integrate refugees into the labor force while reducing turnover rates, increasing workplace diversity, and instilling trust among stakeholders.

The emerging private-sector drive to invest in refugee potential and create shared value by bridging the gap between the private sector and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the displaced is a welcome development. Yet the business case needs to be underscored and repeated for more companies to embrace this business opportunity.

The Business Case

Across the Asia-Pacific region, companies are slow to onboard refugees despite widespread labor shortages and evidence of the benefits of employing and empowering refugees. A research paper published last year highlighted the following benefits to business:

Direct employment. Refugees are usually motivated and highly adaptable workers, they have low turnover rates, and help increase workforce diversity, which can lead to innovation. Companies may also see reputational benefits by demonstrating a commitment to social responsibility, which can lead to increased customer loyalty and a deeper trust from communities and other stakeholders.

Refugees can become assets along the value chain as suppliers, distributors, retailers, and customers.

Inclusive business along value chains. Refugees can become assets along the value chain as suppliers, distributors, retailers, and customers. Businesses can identify possible roles for refugees along value chains and create business opportunities that provide incomes for them. There are also opportunities to provide refugees with much-needed goods and services in affordable ways, creating new markets for businesses.

Social enterprises and small business startups. Refugee resilience and willingness to take risks can forge a new generation of entrepreneurs, for example, who start their own small businesses, a task at which they can be more successful in comparison to host nation entrepreneurs and migrants from English-speaking backgrounds. There are opportunities for the private sector to support such businesses through investments and mentoring activities, as well as explore roles for such businesses in local communities and along value chains.

Skills recognition. The economic contribution of refugees also depends on their ability to use their skills productively. In many cases, refugees who have specific professional qualifications face barriers transferring their skills and experience across borders. Companies (and/or others) can create innovative approaches to identifying those skills.

Online platforms with programs in several countries around the world, such as LinkedIn for Good and Refugee Talent in Australia and Asia in partnership with Host International, are helping to identify the potential of candidates from displaced populations. As this OECD report outlines, there is clear opportunity in the area of skills recognition for proactive companies to take on responsibility for the “assessment of asylum seekers’ and refugees’ skills, ideally in co-operation … [with] the public employment service, with subsequent upskilling provided where needed, and with a specific focus on shortage occupations.”

Identifying Potential 

In response to OECD recommendations, the European Commission recently announced the development of a “Skills Profile Tool” to support early identification and profiling of skills and qualifications of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Employers’ requirements and potential employees’ skills will be accessible by both parties, allowing companies to find suitable candidates and potential employees to see and address the companies’ skills gap. But what can be done in countries where these initiatives have not been introduced?

Refugee Talent is an online platform that connects skilled refugees with companies offering employment. Since going live in Australia in 2016, Refugee Talent has registered more than 150 potential employers and 500 refugee candidates, highlighting the fact that there is an appetite within the private sector to match human resource needs with a supply of talented refugees.

HOST International, an innovative Australian NGO, reports there is a 2:1 return on investment when employing refugees. HOST has partnered with Refugee Talent to create the Refugee Employment project. The project aims to close the employment gap in the Asia-Pacific region, where HOST reports that 40 percent of employers have difficulties finding labor to meet current needs.

Upskilling and Onboarding through Collaboration

Beyond internships and direct employment, private-sector actors can collaborate with NGOs to their advantage as well as to the advantage of displaced populations. The International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) Livelihoods Program involves upskilling, market networking and access, and entrepreneurship development for refugees and migrants living in seven refugee camps and urban areas in Thailand.

This public-private initiative upskills refugees and migrants to reach beyond conventional unskilled/low-skilled expectations, close the gap between capacity building and income generation as far as possible, and ultimately, contribute positively to the communities in which displaced populations choose to live.

An example of IRC’s collaborative initiatives is Microsoft’s YouthSpark programs, which develop creativity and analytical and problem-solving skills of young refugees, enhancing their employability and chances of securing a job when they leave the camps.

Another example is TrustLaw, a program in which Microsoft is one of a number of global heavy weights, including Intel, HP, JP Morgan and AIG, that provide pro bono legal work for a number of humanitarian organizations across Asia. Currently, TrustLaw and IRC are working together to increase the protection of displaced people in Thailand through research and legal training.

Meeting Demand, Moving Forward

Through lobbying governments to introduce potential identification tools early in the asylum process, or lending financial or technical support to organizations already engaged in identifying displaced population potential, the private sector can ensure it has access to and information of a rich and diverse labor pool.

By engaging in risk-sharing investments such as public-private partnerships that focus on displaced persons, or strategically investing in social enterprises and small business startups, forward-thinking businesses in Asia can proactively address their current and future human resource needs, strengthen supply chains, explore new business opportunities and maximize the reputational benefits of good corporate responsibility.

It is expected that labor shortages in Asia will increase significantly over the next 10 years. As Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees recently wrote:

The time has come to discard the clichéd image of refugees as passive recipients of aid, sitting idly with outstretched hands. … Refugees are entrepreneurs. They are artists. They are teachers, engineers, and workers of all types. They are a rich source of human capital that we are failing to cultivate.

Beyond the moral case, the business case is clear; the time to act is now.

Aaron Sloan

Project Manager at CSR Asia

Aaron Sloan is a project manager at CSR Asia where he supports sustainability project management and strategy development. He is a strong believer in business as a driver of positive change.

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