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The role business can play in tackling the refugee crisis


To mark World Refugee Day, we examine the role of the business community in helping to address the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and share specific actions that Unilever is taking.

Children drawing and painting

The impact is widespread

By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations[a]. These crises deprive individuals of their livelihoods, tear apart families and destroy communities. They put a strain on public resources, health systems and schools in host countries. Additionally, by increasing the risk of forced labour and disrupting business continuity, they have a damaging impact on businesses across the entire value chain and on economic growth.

Businesses have a vital role to play

Businesses can and must play an active role in helping address the refugee crisis, as the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action. Doing so can help create jobs, raise the productivity and wages of local workers, lift capital returns, stimulate international trade and investment, and boost innovation, enterprise and growth. According to the International Monetary Fund, investing €1 in welcoming refugees can yield nearly €2 in economic benefits within five years[b].

Addressing the refugee crisis is as much about sustainable growth as it is about respecting and defending human rights. As CEO Paul Polman says: “Refugees are often young and bring diversity and skills. Many have qualities related to perseverance, overcoming challenges, hard work and an ability to problem solve, as well as self-motivation. Not surprisingly, countries that embrace refugees usually have a healthier outlook.”

Leveraging our core business

In addressing the refugee crisis, we bring to the table a host of resources such as our understanding of consumers, knowledge of behaviour change, our ability to highlight issues to consumers, and the provision of financing. By leveraging these strengths in partnership with NGOs, governments, and civil society organisations, we are able to uplift the quality of people’s lives and strengthen economies.

For example, as part of Vaseline’s brand purpose to help heal the skin of 5 million people living in poverty or crisis by 2020, we launched the Vaseline® Healing Project in partnership with Direct Relief. The Project sponsored several dermatological missions providing skin health treatment to people on the frontline. Two of these missions were implemented in refugee camps in Jordan, where an estimated 1,500 patients were treated. And through our partnership, Direct Relief has shipped almost 10,000 units of Vaseline products to help Syrian refugees in Greece and Jordan.

In Lebanon, Unilever joined forces with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Carrefour to help vulnerable individuals during the cold winter months. Through Smile with Us, we are raising awareness of the refugee crisis in retail stores and raising funds from the sale of our products, to provide families with essential everyday items. Given the success of this campaign, it has now being extended to Jordan and Iraq.

Using our scale to drive collective action

We are also using our size and scale to drive collective action. In 2017, we joined the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a platform that enables corporate leaders to unite to more effectively leverage the ingenuity of the world’s businesses. We have committed to co-create initiatives with local NGOs across Europe and the Middle East, with the aim of providing skills and job training to enhance livelihoods, improve access to effective hygiene and support refugee’s social integration.

For example, in Germany, we are working with the Red Cross to offer refugees career coaching. This is bolstered by employees who contribute their skills and know-how.

Today in Europe, the team at Ben & Jerry’s is also showing their support for refugees by kicking-off their ‘Together for Refugees’ campaign, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). It aims to mobilise fans to influence a historic piece of legislation – that could lead to expanded refugee resettlement in the EU – by emailing their representatives in Brussels. In both Europe and the US, Ben & Jerry’s will use its digital channels to share IRC content, including a variety of ways people can help refugees.

Unilever also contributed to the B-Team’s report entitled Refugees & Migrants – An Opportunity for Humanity. This outlines a clear and compelling case for business action, within companies and as part of the larger social movement, and also challenges companies to change the narrative on the refugee crisis – from challenge to opportunity – to help resolve the humanitarian crisis refugees face today.

Moving forward

Unilever will continue to support the needs of refugees by identifying sustainable routes to reduce poverty and improve their health and wellbeing – both of which will contribute to a better world and the success of our business. It is time we move from seeing refugees as a challenge to focusing on our responsibilities and the enormous opportunities they offer.


Source: Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016 (PDF 6.22 MB) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


Source: Refugees Work (PDF 3.96 MB): A Humanitarian Investment that Yields Economic Dividends , Philippe Legrain (for the Tent Foundation), May 2016

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