In 2017, we woke up to new realities every day as a result of geopolitical change, shifting demographics and disrupted business environments. While technological innovation created new opportunities and helped stimulate the global economy, other factors set us back – including imposed travel bans, a widening gender gap and pervasive income inequality.

As global leaders descend on Davos for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, it’s more important than ever for the public and private sector to reflect on the past year and work together to solve societal problems going forward, including one of the most pervasive humanitarian challenges of our time: the global refugee crisis.

Impacting more than 65 million people worldwide, the refugee crisis remains a global issue requiring a global solution. Nearly 1 in every 110 people is fleeing war or persecution. This cannot be managed by one nation, governing body or multinational organization alone.

Treat refugees as individuals

What if multinational businesses welcomed refugees displaced by social and political upheaval and worked with governing bodies to assimilate them into our global workplaces?

I’ll share one example that recently moved me. After making a 2,300-mile journey to Berlin, Mohammad Basel Alyounes, a Syrian refugee and accountant by trade, was greeted by a German news crew. When asked what he hoped for his new life in Germany, he said, “I want to work for EY.” Much to my delight, an EY colleague in Germany saw the interview, used social media to locate Basel — and EY hired him.

Basel now works with EY’s German Diversity Charter refugee support team — which in conjunction with Germany’s Charta der Vielfalt (Diversity Charter) — took action by bringing together businesses, government bodies and social groups. Together, they’re helping refugees from around the world integrate into the workforce and build new lives in Germany.

The EY team has also liaised with 50 German companies to share leading practices, improve refugee internship programs and expand these program to other countries. As part of their charter, they were encouraged to find similar programs already being deployed by multinationals throughout Europe and find ways to collaborate. While the team learned that a one-size-fits-all approach to integration won’t work, they found the key is to treat the refugees as individuals.

I encourage multinationals to continue working with government to broaden these inclusive integration efforts and identify custom approaches that meet the needs of refugees at the individual level.

Two women visit the second job fair for migrants and refugees in Berlin, Germany, January 25, 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Moving beyond fear and misconceptions

When environments are uncertain and income gaps are widening, it’s easy to stoke fears about threats posed by people who are different. We’ve witnessed what can happen over the past couple of years. But refugees are the fabric of nations. They have made and continue to make great contributions to societies, governments and economies.

Case in point: Madeleine Albright – an immigrant and (twice) a refugee – went on to become an accomplished businesswoman, activist, philanthropist and the first female U.S. Secretary of State.

“The divisions brought out by the refugee crisis highlight the issue of global inequality … refugees have made great contributions to our national life. Syrian refugees are learning English, getting good jobs, buying homes and starting businesses. In other words, they are doing what other generations of refugees — including my own — did,” Albright said.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks before an interview in Washington, U.S., November 28, 2016.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Image: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Yet, the global refugee crisis is often met with resistance by nations wary of economic constraints, infrastructure limitations and labor costs.

“I wish … people would see refugees actually as an asset, not a burden. A lot of [refugees] are educated, skillful and entrepreneurial,” Albright said.

Secretary Albright makes a strong point. Forty percent of the largest US companies were founded by immigrants or their children. In Canada, Australia and Germany, immigrants and refugees have had a higher rate of successful entrepreneurial endeavors than the native populations.

To realize the full potential of this, multinationals, government and NGOs must effectively communicate the economic benefits associated with refugees, and identify ways to integrate them into the labor market more seamlessly so they can begin making meaningful economic contributions right away.

Creative ways to address the crisis

As country laws and travel bans place new restrictions on the free flow of migrants across borders, multinationals must embrace technology and find creative ways to address the refugee crisis.

Social media helped EY find and hire Basel. Another creative use of technology came from members of EY’s German Diversity Charter refugee support team, who secured funding for a language-learning app to combat one of the biggest challenges for hiring refugees – language barriers.

Messenger applications also enable refugees to communicate without a cellular network. GPS-sharing and databases such as Crisis Info Hub are making information more accessible to refugees, allowing them to have a safer journey when leaving their homes.

Coursera for Refugees allows nonprofits working with refugees to apply for financial aid and support them in accessing online courses, so they can develop the skills necessary to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.

Multinationals should leverage emerging technology such as big data, artificial intelligence and data visualization to develop programs that not only help governments and refugees respond to this crisis, but also help them better anticipate and prepare for it, too.

By working with government and NGOS and leveraging emerging technologies to address the problems impacting our global societies, multinationals can help lay the foundation for a more inclusive future.

Sustained disruption and uncertainty will pose new challenges on society and our global economies. This will only continue. And we must face the challenge of income inequality head on.

Progress can be made only when we lead with the values that underpin our multinational organizations – the values of inclusion, respect, tolerance and openness to difference. The economic potential that flows from the inclusion of refugees is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution. Of this much I’m certain.

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2018, from 23-26 January, global leaders will gather under the theme “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.”

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.