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New Actors Step Up to Help Shoulder Growing Refugee Burden, But System Slow to Adapt

New Actors Step Up to Help Shoulder Growing Refugee Burden, But System Slow to Adapt

RefugeeHackathon Hackerstolz Flickr

Coding for refugees at a hackathon in Mannheim, Germany. (Photo: Hackerstolz)

Supporting refugees along their journey—from protection in countries of first asylum to settlement in host communities—has always been a joint effort among multiple players, from governments to international organizations and nonprofits. But 2016 has seen the emergence of numerous new actors, including from the private sector, that are engaging with refugee issues in different ways—some more effectively than others. The emergence of this “whole-of-society” engagement and diversity of these new partners creates both opportunities and challenges for governments and traditional civil-society organizations.

Many Hands

Issue No. 8 of Top Ten of 2016

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2016 has seen significant growth in philanthropic action to support refugees and other migrants. During a CEO roundtable held on the sidelines of the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York in September, 51 U.S. companies pledged to contribute $650 million ($500 million of which came from financier and philanthropist George Soros) to organizations supporting refugees around the world. These pledges followed a call to action issued by the White House in June, where 15 leading firms, including Accenture, Airbnb, Google, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Microsoft, and Western Union, committed to working to improve the lives of refugees.

This engagement is no longer just about companies fulfilling corporate social responsibility by making philanthropic contributions. Coursera, an online education company, is providing refugees with financial aid and tailored guidance for its distance learning programs, for example. Refugees make up one-third of the workforce at yogurt manufacturer Chobani; this year its owner established the Tent Alliance, a coalition of businesses using entrepreneurialism to support refugees. And Mastercard has been working with Mercy Corps to provide prepaid debit cards to refugees in transit to make purchases for immediate needs.

Smaller partners such as tech startups have also begun collaborating in informal ways, riding a wave of public interest in the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. New social enterprises are behind hundreds of bright ideas, from using smartphones to improve access to local services, helping refugees develop coding skills, to connecting new arrivals with private citizens offering housing, furniture, or a welcoming meal. For instance, a French project called Comme à la Maison (CALM) matches refugees with families offering housing, and Kiron Open Higher Education is partnering with universities to help asylum seekers transfer credits from distance-learning programs toward traditional higher-education programs once they receive asylum status. Many of the tech innovations are organized through the Techfugees platform, a global movement of technologists and nonprofit professionals that now has more than 15,000 members.

And individuals have also shown deep concern for the well-being of refugees. In Germany, where there is a culture of volunteerism, almost half the population is engaged in some kind of social action to support refugees (whether giving time, money, or material goods). In some countries, members of the public stepped in early on when mainline nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were not yet in position—for example on the Greek island of Lesvos, where individuals and start-up charities took on huge responsibilities, from rescue at sea all the way through care and feeding. However, most receiving countries, including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have also seen social movements in the opposite direction, with increasing pushback, public protest, and social unrest.

Too Many Cooks?

This burst of energy and enthusiasm has brought its own set of challenges. The speed and vigor of the public response have outpaced the capacity of civil society to organize volunteers, leading to reports of “drive-by” donations being dumped in refugee camps, poorly trained front-line staff, and competition between established NGOs and newer actors. Some social enterprises have faced constraints as they tried to professionalize and scale their operations, especially as public interest waned and funding dried up—leading many to revise their business models. For instance, Refugees Welcome, dubbed the “Airbnb for Refugees,” was initially inundated with donations and people offering spare rooms (as well as being overwhelmed by press attention). It is now downscaling its operation in the face of financial constraints and dwindling numbers willing to house refugees.

In other cases, government and civil society have become adversarial. When French authorities began bulldozing the Calais “Jungle” migrant camp in October 2016, volunteers stepped in to protect unaccompanied minors who, amid administrative confusion, had been left in the camp even as it was being demolished. Tech entrepreneurs often complain that working with government actors is overly slow and cumbersome. And some innovations—such as Working Refugees, a program to connect asylum seekers with Estonian e-citizenship that lets them operate a business anywhere in Europe—exploit government loopholes. There have even been instances of people being prosecuted for helping refugees, for example in Denmark for giving refugees rides.

Another concern is that many public-private partnerships represent a drop in the ocean compared to the size of the challenge (for more on the scale of the global displacement crisis, see Issue #4: For Every Step Forward on Refugee Protection, Two Steps Back amid Record Displacement). State-of-the-art reception centers and education programs clearly benefit participants, but if they only serve tens or hundreds they may be further exacerbating the “lottery” that is the refugee existence—or worse, diverting attention from the enormity of the challenge. Many business leaders blame procurement rules, internal accountability systems, and slow bureaucratic processes for preventing good ideas from sowing the seeds of more widespread change.

Improving Collaboration

Some governments are seeking to engage these new actors in a deeper, more structural way to ensure that civil society complements, rather than competes with, government activities. To this end, one idea that has taken hold among the humanitarian community in 2016 is private sponsorship, a type of program in which individuals, groups, corporations, and/or civil-society organizations help deliver refugee resettlement services. This model has proved successful in Canada, and 2016 saw a number of countries such as the United Kingdom introduce aspects of private sponsorship, while others, such as Germany, concluded their experiments with pilot programs. Some have expressed concern, though, that these private efforts are being diverted to care for already-planned refugee streams rather than providing a means to resettle more refugees, allowing the government to offshore its responsibility rather than using private sponsorship to expand its services.

Policymakers also are seeking to tap the innovations that can be found outside government with challenge prizes, which are open competitions where governments offer money for people to propose solutions, and then develop the successful ones. The 2016 Social Innovation Competition, organized by the European Commission, saw winners develop an educational program for refugees to learn furniture production skills, a virtual reality experience to help receiving communities understand what it is like to be a refugee, and a mentoring program to reduce segregation of migrant children in Turkey.

The global protection crisis is one of the greatest, most far-reaching challenges of our age, and it cannot be solved in legislative chambers or ministry meeting rooms alone. How governments take new steps in 2017 and beyond to loosen red tape and further create lasting partnerships with civil society, the private sector, and the broader public will be interesting to watch.


MPI Research


Dearden, Lizzie. 2016. Denmark “Criminalizing Decency” with Crackdown on Helping Refugees, Says Woman Prosecuted for Giving Lift. The Independent, March 12, 2016. Available online.

European Commission, Directorate General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship, and SMEs (DG GROWTH). 2016. European Social Innovation Competition. Accessed November 10, 2016. Available online.

GfK. 2016. Bilanz des Helfens 2016. Presentation, March 1, 2016. Available online.

Grimes, Marisa. 2016. MasterCard Prepaid Debit Cards Provide Refugees with Mobility, Flexibility and Dignity. News release, June 20, 2016. Available online.

O’Carroll, Lisa. 2016. Calais Camp Charities Attack UK and France Over Unaccompanied Children. The Guardian, October 29, 2016. Available online.

White House. 2016. Fact Sheet: White House Launches a Call to Action for Private Sector Engagement on the Global Refugee Crisis. News release, June 30, 2016. Available online.

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