There is huge talent in the world's refugee camps. We must realize this overlooked potential

A South Sudanese refugee winnows maize grains within Kalobeyei Settlement outside the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

A South Sudanese refugee winnows maize grains within Kalobeyei Settlement outside the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, January 31, 2018. Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - RC1C962AD4A0

Joelle Hangi
Director, Refugee Artists and Authors, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
Mariah Levin
Executive Director, beVisioneers: The Mercedes Benz Fellowship
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Forced migration is the political hot potato of our time. With new global records of displaced people set every year, foreign aid falling and an expected surge of climate refugees on the horizon, we will all be affected by forced migration in the years to come.

There are numerous policy and practical barriers preventing displaced people from contributing to the global economy, including lack of working papers in host countries and limited freedom of movement. Concerns over the impact of migration on host countries are landing a whole section of global society in a state of seemingly permanent displacement. But this means we are foregoing the invaluable entrepreneurial spirit these migrants can offer our economies – and ignoring the research that shows investing in them can reap significant returns.

Can we afford to do that? Due to demographic shifts and an ageing population, the workforce in a number of G20 countries is forecast to shrink significantly over the coming decades. In the EU alone, the labour force is expected to decrease by 9% by 2030 and 28% by 2060. These labour shortages could be answered by the incredible talent living in refugee camps. Some countries, like Canada, are already attuned to the economic potential that refugees present and are filling labour shortages with refugee talent.

Investing in refugees today could generate signficiant economic dividends within the next 5-10 years
Investing in refugees today could generate signficiant economic dividends within the next 5-10 years Image: The German Institute for Economic Research / Tent Partnership for Refugees

Given the prevailing political discourse, the path to connecting people in refugee camps to the global economy must incorporate a good degree of innovation. Around 78% of refugees face protracted displacement; some are displaced for 40 years. Technology can provide services that people in these situations could not previously access; several start-ups are using fintech to offer savings and loans to displaced people, who often do not have bank accounts. E-commerce and the internet more broadly can open economic opportunities to connect refugee talent with global demand.

An aerial view shows recently constructed houses at the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
An aerial view shows recently constructed houses at the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, January 31, 2018. Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

In 2018 the Forum of Young Global Leaders took a group of dynamic, influential and knowledgeable delegates to Kakuma Refugee Camp, situated in Kenya’s Northwest region, in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to consider ways to apply their resources – energy, networks, organizations and intellect – to find new approaches to protracted humanitarian situations. Despite significant constraints, Kakuma - which houses a population of almost 187,000 people - has a GDP approaching $56 million and is the economic engine of Kenya’s Turkana County. It is a great example of the entrepreneurial spirit and power across displaced populations.

One of the women the YGLs met was Joelle Hangi, a member of the Kakuma Refugee Camp Writers’ Association, who co-authored this blog post with Mariah Levin of the World Economic Forum.

In this article we want to share the benefit of overcoming barriers imposed on refugee talent. As a newly arrived refugee in the camp, Joelle was not among the lucky few to get a scholarship to continue in higher education. But that didn't stop her from working hard and doing courses in English, cinematography, photography and journalism. For two years, she worked volunteer human resource assistant for the International Rescue Committee.

In 2015, she enrolled for a distance-learning diploma in liberal studies from Regis University, a private Jesuit university in Denver, Colorado, with the support of the Jesuit worldwide Learning charity. She graduated in 2018 and is now studying for a bachelor's degree in Business Communication with Southern New Hampshire University.

The camp offers several degree programmes, many of which encourage entrepreneurism and aim to stimulate the intellectual power of displaced populations. But those refugees are limited in how they can apply these talents.

Despite her success, Hangi feels she has reached an invisible ceiling that stretches over the camp, limiting educational and career ambitions. She has the potential and skills to contribute to the global economy, but doesn’t have the opportunities. She is able and eager to earn a living for herself, her family and community, but is compelled to rely on humanitarian aid.

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Based on the relationships they built last year, this month the Young Global Leaders are returning to Kakuma to exchange their organizational experiences with residents of the refugee camp and the Turkana host community. Leveraging the power of their organizations and individual capacities, they will launch a three-month entrepreneurship and mentoring module in partnership with UNHCR, the Aliko Dangote Foundation and Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre, delivered with the technical support of iamtheCODE. The goal is to develop meaningful exchanges and new pathways for displaced people to enter the global economy, despite the extreme barriers.

The module they designed draws from research on mentorship to reimagine entrepreneurship training in refugee settings. The importance of mentoring is well established in entrepreneurship circles: research shows that 33% of founders who are mentored by successful entrepreneurs typically go on to become top performers. Companies that receive mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs who have led a company to scale are approximately two times as likely to achieve top performance. Building on insights from numerous entrepreneurship support programmes that work with low-productivity microbusinesses, this training will focus on scalable and tech-ready initiatives that have the potential to connect with larger economic trends. Refugees are looking for skills, and Young Global Leaders will use this opportunity to share their own.

The challenge of connecting refugee talent to the global economy, particularly in our politically charged reality, is not a simple task.

The main deterrent refugees face is lack of opportunities. Humanitarian handouts do not recognize the universal potential this population offers to make the world a better place. The refugees study without knowing where to pitch their business proposals, job applications or portfolios.

The effort of the Forum of Young Global Leaders will not provide a silver bullet. But in facilitating genuine exchanges between remarkable leaders from both inside and outside of refugee camps, we can be sure that new and worthy ideas and approaches will emerge.

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