The untapped economic potential of Asia’s refugees

  • Published: 30 August 2017
  • Author: Aaron Sloan

The Asia-Pacific region hosts approximately 14 percent, or 3.5 million, of the world’s 65.3 million forced migrant population. Two thirds of today’s refugee population will be displaced for at least three years, and are often located in countries without the right to work. This waste of talent and ability has a significant negative impact on both refugees and local economies. However, forward-thinking businesses are now positioning themselves to make the most of this untapped potential, using innovative solutions that empower and integrate refugees into the labour force while reducing turnover rates, increasing workplace diversity, and instilling trust among stakeholders.

Corporate humanitarian action can go far beyond survival and temporary assistance, and can include programmes that promote market-based skills, employment, entrepreneurship, technology support, and ultimately, social integration. Organisations like International Rescue Committee (IRC) and HOST International are helping by collaborating with companies such as Microsoft and Vantage Asia Holdings to source long-term solutions for refugees through optimising investments. As Chairman of both Vantage Asia Holding’s and Refugee Talent, Jason Yat-sen Li embodies the emerging private sector drive to invest in refugee potential, bridge the gap between the private sector and NGOs, and create shared value.

Refugee Talent – Creating Connections

Earlier this year, Forbes released its 2017 “30 Under 30 Asia” list featuring ‘innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders who are challenging conventions and making an impact in today’s world’. Amongst the list of honorees is Nirary Dacho, co-founder of Refugee Talent, a digital platform that connects skilled refugees with companies offering employment. Dacho and co-founder Anna Robson’s innovative service was born of firsthand experiences of wasted talent and unrealised potential in a seemingly impenetrable job market; a problem of untapped potential and squandered opportunity by businesses throughout the Asia Pacific region and beyond. However, since its introduction, Refugee Talent has registered more than 150 potential employers and 500 refugee candidates, highlighting the fact that there is an appetite within the private sector to match human resource needs with a supply of talented refugees.

Refugees often find themselves working in fields completely unrelated to their education and professional experience or, like Dacho, not working at all. A 2011 study of humanitarian entrants to Australia, found that after 18 months, 43 per cent remained unemployed. Misaligned refugee employment is not in the best interest of business or the refugees concerned. Worse still, underemployment of refugees is a trend reflected across the Asia Pacific region where it appears companies are slow to onboard refugees despite widespread labour shortages and evidence of the benefits of employing and empowering refugees.

Refugee Talent and HOST International – Finding a 2:1 ROI on refugee employment

HOST International an innovative Australian NGO, was established to shape strategic support services that improve the livelihoods of displaced people on their journey from crisis to protection. It believes that there needs to be a paradigm shift in the delivery of support to refugees from traditional methods to innovative and alternative pathways that focus on education and employment. This has led HOST to partner with Refugee Talent to create the Refugee Employment Project.

The Project aims to close the employment gap in the Asia Pacific region, where HOST reports that 40 per cent of employers have difficulties in finding labour to meet current needs. It is expected that labour shortages in Asia will increase significantly over the next 10 years, therefore HOST continues to seek partners from all sectors to join them to find solutions that create value for both the private sector and the displaced.

HOST reports that there is a 2:1 return on investment when employing refugees. Michael Lavilles, CEO, Lavilles Travel has used the Refugee Talent platform to employ Hedra, a refugee. On the Refugee Talent website, he is quoted as saying, “I own a small business with 16 staff. My ambition is to grow 3-fold in 3 years and I am on track. “People” are key and diversity of ideas puts me ahead of competition. Employing Hedra, highly qualified, supports my plan.”

Microsoft and IRC – Aligning skills with jobs

In Thailand, the IRC’s Livelihoods Program works with cross-sector partners to innovate upskilling, market networking and access, and entrepreneurship development for refugees and migrants living in seven refugee camps and urban areas in Thailand. The Livelihoods team actively engages with the private, academic and civil society sectors to design program interventions based on market demands in Thailand, neighboring Myanmar, and the wider region.

Microsoft has partnered with IRC to upskill refugees and migrants to reach beyond conventional unskilled/low-skilled expectations, close the gap between capacity building and income generation as far as possible, and, ultimately, contribute positively to the communities in which displaced populations choose to live. Beyond IT training, Microsoft’s YouthSpark programmes develop the creativity, analytical and problem solving skills of young refugees, enhancing their employability and chances of securing a job when they leave the camps.

IRC is looking at ways to expand its collaboration with Microsoft and other businesses to go beyond segregated IT literacy, English and other training by developing a comprehensive livelihoods program, which brings together these fundamental hard skills as well as soft skills in leadership and effective communications to holistically prepare displaced people to reach their potential. At the same time, the program aims to offer greater access to job opportunities, created through partnerships with private sector companies in Thailand and the region. In 2016, IRC reached 26 million refugees through its programs in over 40 countries.

A further example of IRC and Microsoft’s partnership and engagement with refugees is its collaboration with TrustLaw, where it is one of a number of global heavy weights along with Intel, HP, JP Morgan and AIG, that provide pro bono legal work for a number of humanitarian organisations across Asia. Currently, TrustLaw and IRC are working together to increase the protection of displaced people in Thailand through research and legal training.

Join the conversation

At the CSR Asia Summit 2017 in Bangkok on 27 September (11:00-12:30), join Jason Yat-sen Li, Chairman, Refugee Talent, and Chairman, Vantage Asia Holdings, David Keegan, CEO, HOST International, Christine Petrie, Thailand Country Director, IRC, and private sector guests including Desarak Teso, Corporate, External & Legal Affairs Director, Microsoft Thailand to discuss the untapped economic potential of Asia’s refugees. The panel will be exploring what a proactive private sector can do to leverage the untapped potential of refugees, create value for companies and provide a self-reliant and secure future for refugees. For more information contact Aaron at [email protected].

Image Source:

1. Relief Web
2. The Guardian, 10th April, 2017
3. ILO, 2013
4. Asylum Access, 2014