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President Trump’s refugee freeze has thrown the spotlight on the responsibilities of business to refugees, says Dr Lara Bianchi

The reaction of the US business community to President Trump’s executive order barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for 90 days – and blocking Syrian refugees for an indefinite period – has been notable.

Although some responses only ranged from ‘no comment’ to mild admonitions, there were much stronger condemnations from tech giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Netflix and Twitter. These big names reacted against the order not just because their businesses rely on the skills of migrant workers, but because they felt it went against US values, business ethics and humanity.

It also showed the enormous influence that leaders from the tech sector and social media have today on shaping public engagement and awareness over social issues.

But it isn’t just tech companies that have such a huge interest. In the wake of the order, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees globally over five years, writing an open letter to staff in which he said the company was committed to hiring refugees in 75 countries. And Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, said the company would offer free housing to refugees and anyone else who needs it.

Role of business

These developments go to the heart of our own work at the Business and Human Rights Catalyst at Alliance AMBS which has been investigating the role of private companies in the current refugee crisis. If any good is to come from this draconian order, it has at least put these issues high up both the political and economic agenda.

Refugee crises are a massive global issue and a systemic threat to our global order. They are directly linked to global social security and the fundamental rights of the individuals involved, which no actor by itself can effectively tackle.

When we talk about crises we actually add a negative connotation to the phenomenon of refugee migration. Yet these people represent a valuable social and economic resource and a melting pot of workforce, values and skills both for the countries in which they live and for the global value chains which employ them.

Refugee crisis

The UN Refugee Agency estimates there are more than 21 million refugees in the world, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Closer to home, the refugee and migration crisis across Europe has put our legal and policy frameworks on human rights under severe strain.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed in 2011, reaffirms the duty of states to protect the fundamental rights of refugees with dignity. This duty is, however, also placed next to the responsibility of businesses to contribute to respecting and promoting such rights.

Companies are actually already involved – whether they like it or not – in many aspects of refugee crises. And, increasingly, political and humanitarian organisations are looking to businesses to show leverage and co-leadership in responding to such circumstances.

The business community – through its global value chains and in partnership with governments, UN agencies and civil society actors – actually has the opportunity to further the respect of refugees’ fundamental rights via significant public engagement and responsive actions.

And this is especially the case when faced with harsh and reckless decisions such as the Trump order which infringe their duty to protect refugees’ rights.

Lara Bianchi is a research associate and coordinator at the Business and Human Rights Catalyst at Alliance MBS www.mbs.ac.uk/bhr

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