Jobs and the Future of Work

Transforming the migration system to make it work for displaced talent

Walter Banegas, 28, originally from Honduras, works at the Pace Industries aluminum injection molding plant, his formal job after settling in Mexico as a displaced person, in Saltillo, Mexico, October 16, 2023. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Displaced talent can help address the needs of labour markets and communities. Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril

David Manicom
Global Advocacy Director, Talent Beyond Boundaries and Fragomen
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Jobs and Skills

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Tens of billions of dollars are spent each year sheltering displaced people, while million of jobs go unfilled across developed economies.
  • Instead, we can capitalize a small fraction of those billions to translate those skills into workers and taxpayers in our communities, in safety.
  • Here's how organizations can work together to integrate displaced talent to address the needs of our labour markets and communities.

Why should someone with the right skills not be hired only because they are a refugee? By a company seeking locally and without success for a pastry chef or a butcher, a care assistant or a nurse, an environmental consultant or a construction estimator, a full stack developer or a fire equipment technician, a hairdresser or software engineer? All of these vacant jobs have been filled in recent months for employers on three continents by leveraging displaced talent.

We can, as an international community, continue to spend tens of billions of dollars each year trying to keep refugees half-fed, half-safe, half-housed and half-educated while millions of jobs go unfilled at all skill levels across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies. Alternatively, we can capitalize a small fraction of those billions to translate those skills into workers and taxpayers in our communities, in safety.

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When refugees are forced to flee, they may leave homes and loved ones and belongings behind, but they carry their talent with them. Refugees represent about 10% of those living outside their home countries globally and adaptations to the existing trillion dollar labour mobility industry that matches and moves workers to employers across borders – so as to enable access by displaced talent to 3% or 5% of current movements – would be transformative.

Empowerment will be found in a four-pillar consortium of government (both national and local), the private sector as employer and champions, the UN and other multilateral players, and humanitarian and community non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which work together to harness the power of the market and the dollars of employers to integrate displaced talent and address the needs of our labour markets and communities.

By doing so, are we empowering displaced people through employment, or empowering industry and society through meeting their hiring with highly-motivated pools of talent? The answer is both.

Obstacles to employing displaced talent

Many good ideas remain unrealized. Labour pathways to safe homes for displaced people encounter several structural obstacles, including:

True innovation of this sort, which applies the power of the market to a humanitarian challenge, does not fit into our current company structures or job descriptions, or official development assistance (ODA) definitions or humanitarian appeal funding envelopes. Corporate human resources structures and government departments – not to mention United Nations agencies – lack the right boxes with the right labels.

Systems friction is severe here. Refugees are largely invisible to existing recruitment mechanisms of small and medium enterprises, industry associations and the world’s largest corporations. Our conceptual models in several areas need to be shaken up, employment pathways at scale as a protection solution means forgetting what we thought we knew about refugees as victims not contributors, and it means re-defining what inclusiveness in hiring means in 2024 and beyond.

The idea sells itself, but a lot of great ideas never reach take-off and we need to change that. One refugee who travelled from Kakoma refugee camp in Kenya to work as a care assistant for the elderly in Nova Scotia, Canada, says that the day someone asked her about her abilities rather than her needs was the best day of her life. It is a solution of respect and dignity.

What are the next steps toward transformation?

The solution is always the same – leadership which dreams very big and plans very carefully.

Like some of the leaders on our ‘Empowerment Through Employment’ event, co-hosted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the World Economic Forum's 2024 Annual Meeting at Davos last month, FEMSA CEO Francisco Camacho Beltran laid out plans for his firm to hire 27,000 refugees by 2027. And that’s just one company – imagine if ambition like that spread through the Fortune 500 and 20 global sector associations.

The pilot and trial phase is over, in my view. Talent Beyond Boundaries, RefugePoint, and others have done proof of concept, moving refugees along safe pathways from countries of first asylum, working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and many other partners, to durable solutions in multiple states in a wide variety of industries, at a low cost, with zero resulting asylum claims, zero cases of refoulement and very high employment retention rates – and of course retention rates can readily be monetized.

Our existing programmes in Australia, Canada and the UK are being joined by Ireland, Portugal and Belgium, where we work closely with the International Organization for Migration, and programme design and implementation will begin this year in US, Italy, Spain, Germany, Slovakia and France, with others to come. But, at a modest scale.

What is needed to enable employment of displaced people

We do now need to stop wishing for scaling and start designing the next phase, by which I mean building the bridge from proof of concept pilots to large scale programmes that mainstream the solution. We need to sit down with the right group of powerful and obstinate players and overcome the "chicken and egg" obstacle that stymies so many such early stage good ideas.

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We cannot get firm commitments to move refugees at scale to fill the needs of our employers without a large and efficient matching and logistical infrastructure; and we cannot finance and design and implement such an infrastructure without those firm commitments. Both need to come first.

The solutions to overcoming that problem aren’t magic and aren’t new – it's called venture capital; it's called angel investing; it's called business incubation. Senior change leaders from those four pillars need to put the infrastructure in place for self-sustaining mainstreaming, which then pays back the investment.

It is fundamentally a supply-chain issue. One where there is (tragically) plenty of supply and (fortunately) plenty of demand. I believe there are people in the World Economic Forum community who know a whole lot more about how to de-bottleneck supply chains than I do.

Those who gather each year at Davos – governments, UN and multilateral organizations, civil society, businesses – all represent what is needed for expanding safe, legal employment pathways for refugees.

As Mark Malloch Brown, President of the Open Society Foundations, said while moderating our panel discussion in Davos recently: “Can integrating the skills of refugees and vulnerable migrations into the huge global systems that move millions legally across borders to work each year solve climate change and the displacement crisis and the labour shortages doing so much damage in health and elder care and the green economy transition and elsewhere, and demographic decline? No.

"Can it be a valuable force multiplier, a significant mitigating force that also brings so many families to safety with dignity? Yes.’’

Talent Beyond Boundaries participated in the ‘Empowerment through Employment’ event at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2024, co-hosted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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