“A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. An internally displaced person, or IDP, is someone who has been forced to flee their home but never cross an international border. These individuals seek safety anywhere they can find it—in nearby towns, schools, settlements, internal camps, even forests and fields.”
—United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- The refugee crisis in Ukraine is the largest and fastest outflow of people from a country since WWII but is just one part of a bigger picture of a humanitarian crisis also involving the internally displaced and trapped. In the five weeks since the invasion, approximately 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country (2.3 million to Poland), the UN estimates. Beyond those refugees, more than 6.5 million have been displaced internally. An additional 13 million, in many ways the most vulnerable, are stranded in place due to ongoing conflict, destroyed roads and bridges, or lack of information on where to go.
- A sustained period of uncertainty is likely for all those who flee and those who take them in: the corporate response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis should recognize this reality. While Afghanistan was a planned evacuation (with big planes flying out refugees to designated locations around the world), the Ukrainian refugee crisis has been spontaneous with little coordination. Moreover, refugees will need permanent relocation as so many homes have been destroyed. But for the most part, finding a lasting new home is not yet an option until families are reunified, as men (and some women) have stayed behind to fight and keep essential services operating.
- Companies’ humanitarian aid needs to be balanced between the near-term needs and the long-term daunting task of either helping to repopulate Ukraine (with much capital investment to rebuild) or permanently relocating the refugees to other countries. In the near term, corporate employees in the neighboring countries are not only helping their coworkers from within Ukraine, but are also opening their homes to strangers who have fled. This has caused companies to rethink how they support their employees who are helping on the ground and facing unprecedented risks associated with doing so.
The Refugee Reality
For refugees, the journey out of Ukraine can be perilous. As men ages 18 to 60 have been asked to stay and fight, around 90 percent of the refugees are women and children, the UN estimates. As such, there are many opportunities for abuse based on age and gender. As of March 18, approximately 265,000 Ukrainian women are pregnant, according to Friends of UNFPA. Refugees who are expecting or breastfeeding are traveling without prenatal and postnatal care, and there are relatively few places along the way to give birth. Those leaving Ukraine typically head for bordering countries: Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. Some Ukrainians are relocating to Russia and Belarus, while people living in these two countries are themselves leaving for other parts. But even amid the extreme conditions and chaos, many Ukrainians do not want to relocate or leave their country.
Taking the lead on refugee coordination and registration is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Registration is critical because it provides refugees with identification, access to aid, and protections though international law.
The UNHCR was established to assist in Europe in the aftermath of WWII, but since then most of its work has been elsewhere. As a result, UNHCR and other refugee-serving organizations didn’t have the infrastructure in place in Europe that they have in other parts of the world as they scrambled to respond to the Ukrainian crisis. Advocacy, legal assistance, mental health care, intensive services for women and children, and of course food and shelter, have all had to be set up—often by bringing in trained personnel from elsewhere. Against that backdrop, the response has been dramatically fast: the agency was able to set up in the first month what usually takes two to three years.
The Role of Business in Assisting Refugees
Many companies that are Members of The Conference Board have employees in Ukraine, Russia, and the neighboring countries. In many cases, companies have continued to pay the employees who are still in Ukraine the best they can knowing that access to banking is not always available. Company employees are welcoming their colleagues who have fled. Companies are offering various options, including employee relief funds, to assist their employees and their families.
On March 9, Members of The Conference Board Corporate Citizenship Councils met virtually with the head of external affairs for UNHCR and the lead for corporate partnerships at CARE to be briefed on the refugee situation and to learn how business can best help.
- Cash is what most organizations need and most companies can give. Companies are making charitable contributions to an array of vetted NGOs assisting in and around Ukraine.
- Employees in the neighboring countries sometimes host refugees in their homes, among other kinds of assistance, and firms are supporting these employees.
- Companies are also supplying debit cards so refugees can purchase what they need from local stores, primarily food, clothing, and hygiene items. This assistance helps refugees stay as independent as possible and preserves their dignity—a level of consideration that is common after natural disasters but a novelty in refugee situations.
- Hotels and short-term rental businesses are offering rooms for both aid workers and refugees.
- Telecommunications companies are providing SIM cards, dropping roaming charges, and offering free international calling.
- Logistics companies are providing in-kind shipping to assist in getting what is needed to where it is needed, among other services.
- Tech companies are trying to keep internet and cellular communications activated and to connect those seeking services with up-to-the-minute information.
- Retailers, manufacturers, and food producers are working with NGOs to ensure that shelters have what they need to operate.
- Some companies in the neighboring countries are offering employees paid time off for volunteering. United Nations Volunteers, Points of Light European Affiliates, and various government entities are providing clearinghouses for volunteers.
The long-term needs of the refugees are difficult to predict. Will they be able to return to Ukraine? If so, when? And even when they can, will they want to? Most refugees will likely not want to relocate far until they know whether they can reunite with family members who did not flee.
Whatever the uncertainties, a comprehensive refugee plan and operation will be needed. Key elements of such a plan include:
- Refugee resettlement: the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another nation that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent residence.
- Welcoming migrant program (reception centers): a location with facilities for receiving, processing, and attending to the immediate needs of refugees or asylum seekers as they arrive in a country of asylum.
- Family reunification: reuniting separated families where at least one member is a registered refugee.
- Refugee foster care: provides a long-term home for children who have been permanently separated from their families, preparing them for independent adulthood.
- Long-term support including housing, employment, and financial aid: community-based partners and resettlement agencies connect people with vital, culturally responsive, and linguistically appropriate services like food and cash assistance, temporary and long-term housing, medical screenings and behavioral health services, employment and training programs, childcare assistance, and help navigating social services.
Companies can support a more comprehensive refugee plan with:
- Cash contributions to vetted refugee-serving organizations.
- Pro bono support by law firms and professional services organizations to help with legal services and to assist organizations to scale to meet the anticipated needs.
- Employee volunteers at welcoming centers.
- Scholarships to relocate outside the EU, including the US.
The example of the August 2021 evacuation from Afghanistan illustrates the challenges associated with a long-term refugee program. That evacuation was organized, with 76,000 Afghans arriving in the US after the Taliban takeover. Organizations such as Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service have since been working with mosques and halal markets to help refugees settle. Even so, tens of thousands struggle with basics such as finding good and affordable housing as they move off military bases into US cities and towns.
Last week, the US administration said the country would accept 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, roughly 30 percent more than were accepted from Afghanistan. But despite the larger number, and chaos involved in fleeing from Ukraine to other countries in Europe, there is reason for optimism that the public and private sectors can rise to the challenge. Those migrating will come over time, not all at once as we saw last summer with Afghanistan. And the governments, nonprofits, and businesses in the US and other countries outside Europe will have more time to plan and put programs in place to more effectively and efficiently acclimate these new residents.
Businesses and their employees are stepping up to address the Ukrainian refugee crisis. As they provide short-term relief, they should also recognize the long road ahead, when even greater resources may be needed. Moreover, they should be mindful that the refugee situation is part of a larger mosaic of the humanitarian crisis inside Ukraine. Companies’ response therefore needs to be informed by both urgency and a broader strategy in stepping forward, once again, to fulfill their humanitarian mission.