Many times over the years, I’ve asked myself what it would take for me to do what millions of internally displaced persons, refugees and migrants have done: leave behind all my belongings and hand over my life’s savings to a stranger who will take my children and I in a crowded boat across a choppy, perilous sea in the middle of the night – all in the hopes of finding some kind of safety or a less precarious life?

How long would I have had to live in a tent, in a camp with millions of other idps or refugees, with no resolution in sight to the conflict that drove me from my home, job and community, with no means to provide even basic provisions or to ensure safety and education for my children? How long would I live with my family in an overcrowded basement in some city – with scarce food, no clean water, electricity or health care?

How bleak would my sense of the future have to be before taking the desperate decision to flee? How hopeless would I have to feel knowing that even if I got to a safe country, my family might get stuck in yet another camp, or live in marginal conditions on the outskirts of society with only a modest chance of gaining entry or a right to stay?

Image: UNHCR

One of the occupational hazards of working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – a humanitarian organisation that helps people around the world affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence – is that we witness people confronted with exactly such dilemmas every single day. We see it all over the world. Conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere are pushing people to take horrendous journeys within their own country, across borders, across the Sahel, the Gulf of Aden, or the Bay of Bengal to name a few.

Syria is at the forefront of people’s minds because of the suffering depicted in the media, the scale of the crisis which is in its fifth year and the extreme complexities of delivering humanitarian aid throughout the country. My colleague, Marianne Gasser, who heads ICRC operations in Syria, went into these towns in January as part of a humanitarian aid convoy and she described what she saw as “among the worst I have seen in terms of human suffering. It was really heartbreaking. When we arrived we saw a lot of people on the streets, especially women and children. They looked really tired and frail. We saw despair in every one of them, especially the children. They were really hungry. Everyone was approaching us asking for a piece of bread or a biscuit. Mothers were desperately waiting for baby milk because they were too weak to breast feed. We saw very difficult scenes. The suffering was intense”.

No one could hear that and argue that the millions of people who have left Syria are people fleeing simply to improve their quality of life. Displaced and refugee demographics confirm this. The migration so often spoken about in the news today is no longer the domain of young men or women hoping to find work and send money home. It’s entire families, or widowed women with babies, even unaccompanied children, risking their lives to reach safety.

This is no short-term phenomenon and there are no quick fixes. Population movements – whether internal displacement in a country or refugee across borders – affects today some 60 million people globally, more than at any time since the second world war. It is one of the greatest moral and humanitarian challenges of our times and, so far, there has been a general failure to find any real lasting political solutions to the conflicts driving people from their homes. The solution to many of these problems lies in the political realm and goes beyond the specific missions of humanitarian organisations.

The corporate response

Fortunately, the basic impulse of ordinary people to ease the suffering of their fellow human beings has been in ready supply. Along the borders of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey massive camps house millions of refugees, along the rocky coasts of Greek islands, and along the many routes that refugees and migrants have taken on their way across Europe, ordinary citizens have been there, helping people get to safety, offering a meal, a blanket, a bottle of water, or just a listening ear and a welcome. The national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the ICRC and others are providing a humanitarian response alongside other local and international organisations Local and global businesses have also stepped in at critical times. Who can forget the cargo and passenger ships altering their routes, often taking considerable risks during high seas, to rescue dozens and sometimes hundreds of people? On a daily basis, fisherman save lives at sea – and too often, they witness what happens when no one is there to act.

“Businesses are looking for deeper, more meaningful relationships with humanitarian organisations.”

When asked the question of what can Europe’s corporations do to address this long-term phenomenon more strategically and more effectively, the easy answer is to ask the corporate sector to contribute financially. Contributions to humanitarian organisations responding to the needs, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies that have community based volunteers in virtually every country of the world, or the ICRC working in war-torn countries. Of course, donations are vital to support organisations that improve the lives of people living in refugee camps and in highly resource-stressed host communities in the areas surrounding conflict. In the case of Syria, that’s Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Many corporations and private individuals are already giving generously, though the needs still far outweigh the resources available.

New fundraising tools are allowing businesses to connect easily to national societies, the ICRC or other organisations and give directly to the causes that employees care most about. Such contributions have a real and immediate impact. But I would argue that making a lasting impact is not just about who you support or partner with, but the nature of that support. One driver of the displacement and refugee crisis, for example, is the wholesale destruction of water systems, health facilities, sanitation and power networks that support civilian life.Repairing and maintaining these systems is an enterprise that goes well beyond annual or short-term emergency funding. With today’s conflicts being largely urban and long-term, the ICRC – including with corporations – is engaging on more strategic approaches that involve multi-year commitments and goals among all stakeholders.

Looking beyond the chequebook

It’s not just about funding. In fact financial support only scratches the surface of what the business sector can offer when it comes to complex and difficult humanitarian challenges. More and more, businesses are looking for deeper, more meaningful relationships with humanitarian organisations as they seek to make greater, long-lasting impact. Humanitarians, meanwhile, are realising that businesses offer more than cash and in-kind goods or services: their market intelligence, logistical know-how and their capacity for innovation can be a huge asset when developing both emergency interventions and long-term recovery strategies. With humanitarian challenges becoming greater and more complex, and the changes affecting our response increasingly fast-paced, the humanitarian sector has realised that it cannot tackle these challenges on its own.

It’s interesting to note, for example, that one of the most important lifelines for many fleeing is not something which was traditionally provided by humanitarians. Rather it’s a widely available commercial product: cellphones. Think about it. In the case of emergencies, it’s the first thing we grab. For so many of us, our phones are tools for business, or a way to stay in touch with friends and family. For many displaced and refugees, it’s a lifeline not only to family, but to survival. They might use phones to look at maps of where safe or open border crossings are, to receive money, exchange advice about dangers along the route, or find out where the Red Cross/Red Crescent or other organisations are offering food or medical care. Mobile phone charging stations are now an important part of humanitarian response.

Such changes are leading to new types of partnership in which humanitarians and businesses find common ground for innovation around shared objectives. Often, this kind of work is most effective when it plays to the corporations’ strengths and when it aligns with the company’s raison d’etre. The ICRC is currently in discussions with Novartis, a major pharmaceutical company, for it to support the ICRC and the Lebanon Red Cross to improve health care among refugees living in urban areas in Lebanon.

Similarly, the Swiss financial institution, Credit Suisse, has offered valuable financial support and expertise to improve web-based searches for missing families through the ICRC’s Restoring Family Links website. The company’s know-how when it comes to creating secure systems has proved extremely valuable for a humanitarian organisation that must ensure confidentiality and trust. Developed in response to conflict and natural disasters, when people are often separated from family, this tool can be a lifeline to find family members.

“Corporations can have an important impact on the way communities perceive refugees.”

Other technology companies have all at various times offered important contributions. In the cases of Novartis and Credit Suisse, both members of ICRC’s Corporate Support Group, the partnership goes even deeper. In addition to long-term financial commitments that support our water and habitat, economic assistance, first aid, as well as the development and promotion of international humanitarian law, these companies work regularly with ICRC personnel in sharing knowledge, developing new applications for technology that can save and improve the lives of vulnerable people.

Getting at the roots: fragile environments

Increasingly, the ICRC is reaching out to include corporate leaders in our discussions as we seek more effective and sustainable ways to improve the lives and resilience of people who live in what we could refer to as situations of chronic conflict. This is one reason the ICRC has an increasingly visible presence within leading business fora, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, where we continue to raise critical humanitarian issues before global economic leaders and engage with the best business minds on developing long-term strategies and solutions.

In March, the ICRC gathered over two hundred leaders from the business, humanitarian, technology, health and academic sectors to share insights, devise innovative solutions and explore partnerships to address issues of health in fragile environments. This is of critical concern to global corporations because these health issues cut across all sectors and levels of society. But it could go even deeper than that. Corporate leaders may consider becoming more public advocates for better protection of civilian populations during conflict by advocating for respect of the basic tenets of international humanitarian law – sometimes referred to as the ‘laws of war’. One key driver of the displaced/refugee phenomenon is the lack of security felt by ordinary citizens and that insecurity is fueled by widespread violations of basic protections for civilian populations.

Though the Red Cross itself and the first Geneva Convention – a treaty to oblige armies to care for all wounded soldiers signed in 1864 – was the initiative of a Swiss businessman, today the business sector is not as active as it could be in making the public case for strengthening the implementation of the laws of war, which are today composed of four Geneva Conventions and three Additional Protocols.

This is too bad given that corporations, and the people who lead them, are often seen as thought leaders in their respective communities and countries. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer finds that 80 per cent of respondents look to businesses for leadership not just in economic matters but also in the key societal issues.

Together we might explore new ways for businesses to help us build momentum and consensus toward enhancing respect for international humanitarian law.

Thought leaders

As thought leaders with the resources to connect to millions of people around the world, corporations can have an important impact on the way communities perceive refugees, displaced persons and migrants. At this time we should all think about how we could contribute to increase understanding of the issues behind why people leave their homes, how we can work for better respect of the laws of war, how we can contribute with time or donations, and our part for humanity. At a minimum, we should all be able to ask ourselves the question: what would it take to make me leave my home?

How companies can help

• By donating to key humanitarian response organisations, such as the Red Cross, UNHCR or MSF.

• By supporting grassroots initiatives and movements that provide invaluable on ground support to refugees, such as the Migrant Offshore Aid Station.

• By donating goods and services such as nourishment essentials, transportation or clothing.

• By matching skills with jobs: many refugees are young, well-educated and skilled in critical sectors. In an aging continent with low birth rates such as Europe, matching refugee’s skills with employment and training can be an important contribution.

• Under an initiative entitled “We-together” 36 German companies have joined together to promote the integration of refugees – see www.wir-zusammen.de for more details.