The private sector and refugee protection: beyond the photo ops, it’s time for checks and balances

A quiet revolution?

To varying degrees, humanitarian and refugee protection advocates are becoming increasingly interested in the role of the private sector in responding to refugee crises. It’s become common for the line ‘and investment from the private sector’ to be tagged on to any new humanitarian response plan. No coordination meeting would be complete without someone adding ‘what about the private sector and CSR funding?’ to a chorus of puzzled but polite mumbles of assent. Across international forums, the idea that refugees are both the next employees and the next consumers of the most forward-thinking brands is increasingly gaining traction. The UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) recently wrote an opinion piece about the ‘quiet revolution’ of the private sector, outlining the two main roles they see for businesses: providing jobs for refugees, and helping humanitarian agencies innovate and improve their assistance.

The most famous examples of private sector engagement include improvements in housing in refugee camps, jobs for resettled refugees in US factories, and improved mobile phone connectivity for those on the move. These are all positive individual achievements for the companies and individuals involved, but can they really be qualified as a revolution? Factory jobs in the United States are a world away for the millions of people unable to cross borders, or waiting to be resettled with impossibly low odds. Tents that withstand the weather are a bare minimum for those stranded in camps for decades. Mobile connectivity can enable many positive opportunities, especially related to ongoing education, but these still come to a standstill without the right to work in countries of origin.

Or a responsibility cop-out?

Various scholars have been critical of the growing tendency to rely on actors other than states to take responsibility for refugees. Recently, when a TedTalk event focused on entrepreneurship and resilience was hosted in a decades-old refugee camp in Kenya, Hanno Brankamp wrote that this mounting rhetoric “makes false promises and diverts attention away from structural inequalities, discrimination and policies of containment”. In a response to the idea of special economic zones as the answer to the Syrian refugee crisis, Professor Crawley pointed to the link between businesses looking for new ways to make money and governments washing their hands of responsibility for the rights of the displaced.

Nevertheless, we can probably assume that the trend of looking to the private sector as the new panacea for refugee crises is unlikely to slow down anytime soon, especially at a time when so many states are strengthening their borders. It becomes therefore important not to disengage, but to try to influence the trend in the right direction and to mitigate potential damage.

Opportunity for a strategic alliance?

A first step in steering this trend must start with a discussion as to whether the private sector can support re-directing the focus back on state responsibility. In particular, instead of asking ‘how do we get businesses to see refugees as customers and employees’, the question must become: ‘can the private sector be leveraged to push for greater state responsibility?

Lessons from efforts to regulate the global response to climate change might suggest that, indeed, key players from the private sector can be persuaded to act as political allies. In particular, during the build-up to the Paris Agreement, environmentalists that collaborated, lobbied and guided the private sector for years found that once the ‘business case’ for climate regulation had been made, businesses became a powerful catalyst for state action and some of the most vocal actors at the negotiating table. Their presence contributed to the marked difference from previous climate conferences, and was a key factor in Paris’s success.

In a similar vein to the climate arena, the more actors committed to the refugee response, the more legitimacy these voices can gain. With a business case in place and enough companies on board, the result could be a private sector lobbying governments to strengthen rights, to dismantle barriers to labour markets, and to take greater shared responsibility for hosting refugees. Sceptics will point to the difficulties of creating stronger ‘business case’ for refugees, beyond that of the benefits of refugees as customers or recipients of philanthropic funds in exchange for favourable press. Yet the mounting numbers of companies publicly calling for regulation in what seem like direct contradictions to their business models (recently against palm oil and plastic) serve as examples that such cases can be made with the right amount of lobbying and public interest.

A watchdog on damaging behaviour

There remains another, more pressing, reason that refugee protection advocates should become more engaged with the private sector: to track and rein in damaging behaviour. The devastating impact of large-scale development and infrastructure projects have been widely documented for decades, especially by affected displaced communities themselves. From human rights abuses, to forced evictions, to gentrification, to exploitation, the track record of the relationship between displaced people and the private sector is bleak. Yet while communities, human rights defenders and journalists have long been exposing company practices directly causing displacement, less focus has been placed on private sector influence on state policies.

Recently a few evocative examples have hit the news. After the so-called European ‘migration crisis’ of 2015, it emerged that a large international consultancy firm had been hired for $34 million by the German government to advise on how to streamline its asylum procedures. Faster asylum decisions were made by the migration office, often to the detriment of rights and triggering enough appeals to backlog the system. This year, another large consultancy firm placed a bid to streamline and modernise Saudi Arabia´s military, despite the latter’s role in humanitarian crises and displacement. And while displacement can often be seen as ‘collateral damage’ of certain private sector operations, some businesses actively participate in implementing increasingly hard-line migration strategies, as did a private company contracted by the UK government in 2018, allegedly paid extra money if more people were deported.

A more nuanced approach to business and refugee protection

There is one common denominator between these cases: companies are following the money. Advocates are right to be sceptical about the reasons or sincerity behind companies claiming to support refugee protection. Not all firms are the same: some may have certain moral guidelines that would prevent them from pitching for certain projects such as the Saudi military strategy, whereas others are increasingly grappling with how to integrate human rights and tackle child labour. But companies will increasingly continue to follow the money, by exploiting, employing or marketing for refugees. Failing to attempt to regulate their behaviour lies somewhere between missing an important opportunity and washing our hands of responsibility.

However, organisations working to leverage the political potential of the private sector are few and far between. Initiatives have been set up to promote the philanthropic and CSR efforts to support refugees, but who is keeping track of the interactions between states and businesses on migration policies? Who is looking at the entire panorama of business and refugee rights, and its nuances, and promoting the good, supporting those trying, and calling out the ugly? As the private sector makes commitments on refugee protection, who will define minimum standards of engagement so that the equivalent of ‘green washing’ does not become a common practice?

study conducted in 2014 by the Overseas Development Institute found that humanitarians and the private sector know little about each other’s capabilities and needs, with humanitarian workers seeing the private sector as solely profit minded and companies viewing humanitarian actors as disorganised. As the simplest form of collaboration – financial or material contributions – is prioritised, neither sector have the right employees in place to facilitate dialogue on more substantive issues. Yet it’s not too late to start this dialogue.

Environmental and human rights NGOs regularly act as checks and balances to the private sector, calling attention to bad practices, co-creating certification schemes to regulate behaviour and pushing consumers to use their purchasing power in favour of the environment and human rights. If refugee protection advocates do want to see a real revolution in the engagement of the private sector in refugee protection, it might be time we followed their lead.

On My Radar: Extreme weather eroding independence & lessons from engaging with climate deniers

This is the first in a series of regular round-ups of articles and resources that I will be posting. I’m an avid reader of regular ‘recommended reads’ made by bloggers or news sites (such as IRINnews and Refugees Deeply), so I thought it would be time to establish my own compilations of some of the links that I’ve found and pondered over. Do leave me a comment below to let me know if you also found these articles interesting!

Aerial view of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Blue reinforced plastic sheeting cover some of the roofs damaged by Hurricane Maria. S. Nelson-Pollard: Jan 2018.
  • On new renewable energy perpetuating old power structures: I’m currently in Puerto Rico, which is five months into recovering from the mighty Hurricane Maria. While most of the capital, San Juan, is back to operating at most of its previous capacity, the street that I’m living on only just got electricity back this week. As the island’s old grid is gradually being repaired and power cables restored, people across the island have been dependant on the few neighbours on their streets running noisy generators, especially for keeping their fridges running. After the storm I was caught up in the internet buzz that the post-hurricane reconstruction could generate a massive boom for renewable energy on the island. However, this article from the Puerto Rican Centre for Investigative Journalism (CPIPR) was an interesting read, explaining how the majority of solar panels in Puerto Rico are leased from a Texan company and connected to the main electricity grid. To the surprise of many of those who thought they would achieve energy independence through investing in solar panels, when the grid doesn’t work (such as, for example, after a major hurricane), the panels shut off. As a researcher from the University of Puerto Rico puts it in the article “We went from fossil dependency to renewables dependency with a company that is not from here. We continue to send the money out of the island,”. As a response to customers complaining about not being able to depend on power despite having the panels, the company proposed supplying batteries, at an extra cost, $100 a month for 10 years…

  • On Hurricane Irma potentially ending collective land ownership in Barbuda: I was curious to know how reconstruction was going on other Caribbean islands, and came across this short video and this short documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Barbuda. The land on Barbuda has been held in common ownership since the end of slavery, meaning that it cannot be bought or sold. Developers can lease land if their projects are accepted by a majority of Barbudans. However, to pay for post Irma reconstruction, the government of Antigua and Barbuda wants to end this common ownership system and allow for private investment. Foreign investors are eyeing up the pristine beaches, including Robert de Niro, who is looking to build a mega luxury resort. In an attempt to keep their unique political system (and I assume to prevent the island becoming a giant golf course), many Barbudans are fighting back against this move by the government. But as this documentary reminds us, it can be extremely difficult for displaced people to defend their land rights, especially when they are far from home, dispersed, and so much of their energy has to go into finding new schools for their children, securing new jobs, and protecting their belongings which are still sitting under an open roof. It’s the opportune time for land grabs.

  • On learning the lessons from engaging with climate deniers: Taking my reflections on the growing realities of climate change a step further, I started listening to the podcast ‘Warm Regards’ one afternoon last week, and found the latest episode on tips for engaging with climate deniers quite interesting. In a post-Brexit/Trump world, I think we are becoming increasingly aware that although our echo chambers are cosy, they must be dismantled if we are to see any real change. I’m always interested in the particular topic of engaging with people who are politically very different to me, especially as I’ve been really terrible at this in the past and have charged into conversations like a bull. One of the concepts from the podcast stuck with me: some people may choose to deny climate change because they see the solutions as taking away some of their fundamental freedoms, preferred comforts or parts of their identity, and we have to recognise how this can be scary or difficult, but in a sense, we also have to answer the question of ‘What part of me do I have to let go of?’. The guest on the show, a climate scientist called Katharine Hayhoe, mentioned for example when she was challenged by people who have no scientific background, nor respect for facts, she would feel as if it was a direct attack on her identity as a scientist. She raised that it’s important to leave these emotions, which are directly tied to our personal egos, aside, in order to engage in conversations outside ivory towers. If we expect climate deniers to have to lose a part of their identities (such as driving an SUV), we should be prepared to lose a part of our identities (such as being respected as scientists, for example). This was super interesting to me, as a pointer for my next conversation on migration and displacement, with people who may not agree with me or who believe false information. The aim is not to get people to agree with the facts or to be respected as an ‘expert’, but to find common ground in which to plant some seeds of increased tolerance and change.
That’s what’s been on my mind this week! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and any recommendations you may have.

Development-induced internal displacement: the displaced on nobody’s radar

Imagine waking up one day to the sound of bulldozers on your street and to being told to leave your home because your land was to be the site of a new tourist holiday resort, road or airport. No forewarning or public consultation had been given. Local authorities support the project and want nothing to do with your complaints and concerns. Worse still, the project is supported by a major international institution, which aims to encourage the sustainable development of your nation. No international agency comes to support you in your forced resettlement. As a result of moving far from your workplace, you cannot maintain the same schedule and end up losing your job. Furthermore, you accumulate debts associated to moving that you cannot pay back. This is not an invented scenario: according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in 2016, the most frequently cited global estimate of people displaced by development and business activities is 15 million people a year, but this figure is considered conservative.

Ethical complexity
One of the reasons why this type of violent and traumatic displacement is rarely a global priority lies in the ethical complexity of the projects in question. Unlike conflict induced displacement, which can only be qualified as negative, on the other side of the coin of development induced displacement, is the public interest argument. If a large scale development project can demonstrate that it is in the public interest, will improve self-determination and will reduce poverty (Penz, 2002), there may be grounds for considering displacing people. Yet the true value of the project must include the true cost that it will bear: compensation and resettlement of the displaced people. Too often, this true cost is not accounted for. The Brookings Institute on Internal Displacement found in 2003 that ‘while the beneficiaries of development are numerous, the costs are being borne disproportionately by the poorest and most marginalized populations’. This goes against all aspirations for sustainable development and targets set by the SDGs and human rights treaties. States often rest on the concept of their ‘eminent domain’, the right for states to expropriate property in certain circumstances (Muggah, 2003), but fail to ensure the basic rights of their citizens.

Despite the high numbers of IDPs displaced by large-scale development projects, rivalling those displaced by conflict or climate change, no UN agency has taken charge of ensuring their protection and rehabilitation. This was particularly striking during the 2016 Olympics, while the world rejoiced at the successful athletic victories of the Refugee Olympic team. To make way for the Olympic Games infrastructure, around 6600 families had been evicted. IDMC found that the compensation given to these families did not cover the cost of an adequate home and new expenses.

Millions of people need adequate protection, frameworks to ensure their rights, and international support to ensure their new lives. Cost-benefit analysis of development projects must include ways of measuring the impact that a new project will have on local communities. Cues could be taken from similar efforts in corporate sustainability to measure how much natural and social capital has to be spent to create a product (ie. how much would the production costs raise if the company had to put a price on water). Development projects cannot keep going ahead at such a high price.

Text initially submitted to the ‘Internal displacement in law and policy: war and beyond’ module for the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration at the Refugee Law Initiative on the 13th of January 2017.