Supporting Refugee Lives and Livelihoods during COVID-19
By Tim Docking, Managing Director, Refugee Investment Network
Fatimah, a Syrian bread seller living in Turkey was forced to close her shop because of the pandemic. With a family to support and mounting bills to pay, she pivoted her business model with a determination and resourcefulness commonly found among refugees and began to successfully sell her customers the yeast and other ingredients necessary to bake their own bread until she can return to her ovens.
Stories like Fatimah’s abound as refugee entrepreneurs are confronted by frozen markets, broken supply chains, and disappearing jobs.
The stunning socio-economic toll exacted by the COVID-19 virus in China, Europe and the United States has been well documented and is still playing out. As the pandemic continues its global spread, new studies and analyses shed light on the extent to which the virus threatens the life and livelihoods across developing nations: For the first time in over 20 years, the World Bank is forecasting the growth in the number of the world’s most poor, with the potential of up to 60 million additional people falling into “extreme poverty” (less than $1.90/day), effectively wiping away decades of economic growth across the emerging markets.
Yet the new and daunting challenges that have sent the lives and economies of both wealthy and emerging economies reeling also threaten to overshadow longstanding global crises, setback progress, and provide cover for the neglect — or worse, the discrimination and exclusion — of the most vulnerable populations, such as refugees.
In 2019, there were over 70M refugees and other forcibly displaced people worldwide — the highest number in history. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, if left unchecked and on its recent trajectory, this number will top 300M forcibly displaced people by 2030.
Refugees are found in countries around the world; the vast majority live outside of camps and often in crowded urban conditions with poor sanitation and hygiene, where the basic preventive prescriptions to fight COVID-19 of social distancing and hand washing are not an option. Access to social safety nets, medical care, or even reliable information often doesn’t exist.
In April, the Refugee Investment Network (RIN), the first impact investing intermediary dedicated to creating durable solutions to global forced migration, polled its membership of refugee entrepreneurs, investors, startup accelerators, and humanitarian and development professionals to learn how their lives and businesses were being impacted by COVID-19.
The response to the RIN survey was clear: Refugees and refugee entrepreneurs are being hit hard. From the survey, a picture emerges of serious hardships among entrepreneurs as well as a clear set of needs; yet, the results also show clear signs of resilience, innovation, and hope.
Refugees are telling stories of the concomitant hardships stemming from national lockdowns, new levels of poverty and economic loss, and a fraying welcome mat within host communities.
According to a Pew Charitable Trust survey, 91 percent of the world’s countries have imposed tighter border restrictions on who can enter their country, while 39 percent have completely closed their borders to outsiders. In Colombia, national policy continues to accommodate more than 2 million Venezuelan refugees, but a number of local mayors have shut down shelters and denied health care, and are blaming refugees for security and health problems.
Meanwhile, the UN’s World Food Program is warning that the virus could cause a related “food pandemic,” threatening to push 130M people to starvation. The current vicious cycle of disease, economic hardship, xenophobia, and hunger presents an almost numbing challenge. In the face of these hardships, however, the RIN’s network of refugee entrepreneurs is showing creativity and grit.
Lubingo, a displaced carpenter living in Rwanda, was forced to close down his business due to the lockdown. When asked about life after the current crisis, he said, “I want my boys to know that they can work hard and be self-reliant. I don’t want them to wait for someone to give them anything.”
While refugee entrepreneurs express their needs — for working capital, investment, help to access government programs and online tools and training—they also express their desire to be independent, to grow their skills, to source new orders, and get back to work.
As one respondent to RIN’s survey pointed out, perhaps the greatest long-term risk posed by the current pandemic is a return to charity-driven models that create dependencies and hold refugees in limbo. But as Refuge Point’s Senior Advisor Amy Slaughter neatly summed up, “Work on refugee livelihoods cannot wait for conditions to be perfect...the areas where we work are crisis-prone and that fact has been used as an excuse to do little to support refugee’s self-reliance ambitions for too long. We cannot allow the pandemic to be used as yet another in a long line of excuses.”
Even during these exceptionally difficult times, the spirit of independence and optimism was common among survey respondents, indeed, traits that are considered universals across the refugee investing ecosystem. Meeting the immediate health care, food and other protection needs of refugees is critically important. So too is providing the tools, resources, and financial opportunities that allow for entrepreneurship and self-reliance.
On June 16th, ESGX will host "Roads to Refuge" to discuss
How can we inspire wider collaboration and greater urgency to help refugees?
What social and economic benefits flow from effective refugee integration?
Where can companies and investors deploy capital to help solve the crisis?