Mark Goyder is a senior advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He’s the founder of Tomorrow’s Company and co-author with Ong Boon Hwee of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation, published by World Scientific in 2020.
The tragedy of lives lost in Greece reminds us more than ever of the need to find safe routes for migration. This is a problem that all of us need to confront, whether we are individual or corporate citizens.
And all of us includes businesses and their boards.
As individual citizens, we cannot go on holding our noses while the unsafe routes are followed and migrants — the majority of whom are escaping persecution or war — are left to the mercy of people smugglers and their leaky vessels. In any case, as I pointed out in an earlier blog, the problems are only just starting. In the case of Sudan, 80,000 people have crossed the border into Chad. Chad was already hosting about 600,000 refugees, the largest refugee population in central Africa, including 400,000 from Sudan.
In her memoir on her time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, leading up to the successful completion of the Good Friday agreement, Mo Mowlam reflected that she and Prime Minister Tony Blair always found that there is much to be gained from treating people, whoever they are, as human beings (Mo Mowlam, Momentum: The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002, p193).
So, if morally we cannot duck the problem, why not ditch the scarcity thinking and try thinking abundance instead?
The current language of much of the political debate about asylum seekers is borrowed from the world of storage and warehousing, largely ignoring human empathy or human rights. We talk about our failure to “process” the backlog of asylum seekers. There is discussion in the media about the problem of where to put them, rather as if they were prisoners of war; in cruise ships, redundant hotels, or disused military camps.
It does not seem to occur to the decision-makers involved to think of these people as we might wish to be thought of if the persecution and the torture and the war and the natural disasters had happened to us.
How would we feel if we were the migrants fleeing war or persecution? If it happened to us, we would like to be told: “Welcome to our country. We will process your application for asylum as quickly as possible, and certainly within six months. During this time we want you to feel welcome here. Admittedly, we are currently offering you some rather unsatisfactory accommodation. However, we may be able to improve on this if you have a willingness to get involved in the neighbourhood where you are housed and would feel able to volunteer for various tasks for which you have the necessary capabilities.”
What might this mean for a local authority, a charity, or a large business?
As so often happens in the UK, our charitable and third sector is already in action, treating asylum seekers as fellow human beings, not statistics. In my own county, I have only just discovered Suffolk Refugee Support, which offers English language classes, practical advice and support, help with job applications and work placement opportunities, and access to the right physical and mental health support.
This is just a local example of an array of community initiatives.
What about business?
Four years ago, the charity Refugee Action conducted a poll of over 1,000 business leaders. Two-thirds of them said that government should lift the ban which prevents people seeking asylum from working. 64% said that they would expect to see a benefit in terms of a diversity of experience and skills.
Previous research by the Lift the Ban Coalition organised by Refugee Action showed that if half of the people seeking asylum earned a national average wage, the government would recoup nearly £50m through tax and national insurance payments.
So it seems many businesses are already involved in seeking to persuade the government to allow asylum seekers to be paid to work. While that issue remains unresolved, there is more that can be done.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centre for Entrepreneurs undertook a refugee entrepreneurship pilot, backed by the Home Office and the National Lottery Community Fund. 112 refugees received business startup training through the pilot. Despite the pandemic, 25% of participants were trading by the end of the pilot and a further 40% planned to launch within 12 months.
Many employers offer school students the opportunity to do work shadowing — why not offer it to asylum seekers who have proved their interests and their bona fides by their relationship with organisations such as Suffolk Refugee Support?
Many voluntary organisations attract volunteers to help meet community needs. Why not extend those opportunities to local asylum seekers? Why not extend collaboration between local businesses and the local welcome hubs, brokering volunteering opportunities? Who knows, in time a growing number of asylum seekers still awaiting the right to work could be building up contacts, experience, language abilities, and a vital sense of pride and belonging.
Business in the Community already has its “Opening Doors for Refugees” programme, which is focused on refugees who are entitled to seek paid work. Why not build on its experience to ensure that every asylum seeker who approaches a local refugee council participates in a local skills audit and undertakes a period of work experience which helps ready them for paid employment as soon as this is permissible?
Asylum is set to become one of the key tests of our claim to be a civilised country. Our third sector of community organisations is playing its part. Are businesses playing theirs?