Economic Growth

What is the business view of Europe’s refugee crisis?

Lucy Marcus
Founder and CEO, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
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In the face of the largest influx of refugees into Europe in decades, the responses and policy proposals from the European Union and its member governments have varied enormously, and the debate has become deeply politicized. International organizations and non-governmental agencies such as the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee, and religious leaders such as Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, have weighed in as well. But one group’s voice has been conspicuous by its absence: business.

While governments, charities, and donor organizations actively discuss how to share responsibility for refugees on all steps of their journey – from camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to transit to settlement – European business has been strangely silent. But, at a time when business is more powerful than ever, with multinational corporations stretching around the world, the private sector must work with governments and NGOs to help address the short-term and long-term challenges posed by the massive refugee inflows.

Indeed, industry leaders in all sectors owe it to themselves to be involved from the start. Only by turning the challenges into opportunities can social, political, and economic risks be mitigated.

There has been one notable exception to the pattern of private-sector silence. Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been at the political forefront of the migration crisis, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) has been at the business forefront. The BDI has spoken clearly and decisively about the benefits of refugees for business and has proposed changes to Germany’s labor laws and regulations, including fast-tracking the newcomers’ right to work. In order to make business engagement and investment sustainable, the BDI has also sought assurances that migrants who find employment will not be deported.

Now it is time to hear from other countries’ business associations. How do the Confederation of British Industry or France’s MEDEF intend to respond? And what of individual multinational corporations? What legislative changes do they think they will need to aid governments and the EU in addressing the refugee crisis and ensuring long-term stability in Europe?

The challenge, everyone agrees, is not confined to managing the huge inflows and processing asylum applications. In the coming months and years, destination countries must lay the foundations for integrating refugees into their workforces. To wait too long is to miss an important opportunity to be involved in developing a strategy that works for businesses, governments, and societies alike.

Becoming involved early in the process of assessment, education, and integration planning would allow the private sector to help shape policy from the outset, rather than complaining about the government’s failures after the fact. Business leaders can help identify the skills and abilities that would most benefit their sectors, establish guidance and training programs, and offer apprenticeships.

The benefits are clear. The refugees arriving on Europe’s shores are often young, well educated, skilled, and eager to integrate quickly into society. They are an antidote to aging populations and low birth rates, and many come ready to work. By collaborating with the public sector, business can help to ensure that they get the training and jobs they need.

Business also has a role to play in helping to shape societal attitudes toward refugees. This is particularly true of public-facing organizations. Football clubs across Europe are not only donating money, but also taking concrete steps to encourage a welcoming atmosphere, with welcome banners, training camps for refugees, and, in the case of Bayern Munich, language lessons.

Not all of these refugees will remain in Europe permanently. One day, many may return to their homeland. When they do, they will have the skills to help rebuild their societies and economies, as well as provide strong ties to the country where they sought refuge. The importance of this investment in future state building, as well as business relationships, cannot be underestimated. Although the payoff may seem distant, investing in today’s refugees could make all the difference in building tomorrow’s strong, stable trading partners.

Europe’s refugee crisis continues to be viewed solely as a political problem, in part because that is how the media portray it. The only business coverage tends to focus on the financial impact caused by the disruption of transport links such as the port of Calais. But Europe’s refugee crisis is also a business problem. By addressing it now, business can turn that problem into an opportunity for all.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Lucy P. Marcus, founder and CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, Ltd., is Professor of Leadership and Governance at IE Business School and a non-executive board director of Atlantia SpA.

Image: Syrian refugees walk towards Greece’s border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 14, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

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