Business absent from migrant crisis debate

London Business School expert asks if business has a role to play


With few exceptions, the business community has been absent from the debate about how to best deal with the refugee crisis, not only in the short term but importantly, in the long term, a London Business School expert has said.

Ioannis Ioannou, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School has questioned the boundaries of corporate responsibility, asking if business has a role to play.

Writing on Forbes Dr Ioannou says that according to the latest figures by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 9 million Syrians have left their country since the beginning of civil conflict in 2011. And yet, unlike climate change where whole companies and even industries have taken bold action, business he says have been largely absent from the debate.

“Through various company-led initiatives, as well as industry-level collaborations with NGOs and other key stakeholders, a number of leading corporations have not only perceived the existential threat that climate change poses but also, have begun to take bold action by setting ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and to innovate across their products, services and even business models towards a more sustainable future”, Dr Ioannou explains.

“But with few exceptions, business has been conspicuous by its silence. In an era in which the world’s largest corporations are becoming ever more powerful, it is high time that societies established a conversation about two key questions: should the business community share responsibility for dealing with the refugee crisis in the short-term as well as the long-term? If yes, what are the boundaries of its potential responsibility?”

Already, some companies have assumed a share of the responsibility and have contributed to the crisis in a predominantly philanthropic or charitable way. For example, BT and Goldman Sachs have made generous financial donations to humanitarian organisations that provide immediate relief to refugees arriving in Europe. Others, like Unilever, have provided in-kind donations to refugees in the form of products or services while some law firms have offered pro bono legal support to asylum seekers. 

But corporate involvement has mostly focused on short-term solutions in the form of relief and has stopped short of a long term commitment.

“There are, of course, those who suggest that providing employment is an effective way in which businesses can positively contribute to the easing of the crisis in the long term”, Dr Ioannou explains. “Employed refugees, whether skilled or unskilled, could generate a healthy income to sustain their families, contribute to economic growth, establish a home and perhaps, in due course, and through generations, they might be able to integrate with their host communities through shared language and culture.

“Yet, a well-intentioned company in Hungary, seeking to share responsibility for the crisis by employing refugees, will be completely unable to do so for as long as the Hungarian government keeps the borders of the country, and indeed of the European Union, militantly closed. That border is exactly where politics meets business but it also represents a governmental policy that imposes a boundary on the extent of corporate responsibility.” 

It’s a thorny issue, but Dr Ioannou believes that successful long-term solutions are always more difficult to find and implement than short-term ones and business could be part of the solution.
The question of the boundaries of corporate responsibility as it relates to mass migration is not only critical but it is also timely, particularly if one is to believe those who claim that the current refugee crisis is only a small preview of the waves of migration – reaching 150 million people by 2050 according to the Environmental Justice Foundation – that we will face due to climate change in the years to come.

About Ioannis Ioannou

Ioannis Ioannou is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School.

He teaches on the following programmes: