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Leadership / Innovation

Why refugees are an untapped source of innovation

Businesses pursuing innovation should reduce the barriers to employment for refugees, says the founder of non-profit Techfugees.

Firas Khalifeh is, in some ways, a typical technology start-up founder. He had a vision – to replace the plastic used in consumer electronics with more durable and environmentally friendly carbon fibre – and the drive to make it a reality. His company, Carbon Mobile, was founded in 2015 and has since raised €1.6m to develop the world’s first carbon-fibre smartphone.

But unlike most of his peers, Khalifeh was living in a refugee camp when he co-founded the company. And he raised the considerable capital required to set up hardware business while travelling between his native Syria and Germany – and supporting his family.

Refugees innovation
The journey that refugees face in leaving their home countries imbues them with the qualities that drive innovation, says Techfugees CEO Raj Burman. (Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/X07402/AFP via Getty Images)

This perseverance and determination are among the characteristics that give refugees great potential as a source of innovation, says Raj Burman, CEO of Techfugees, a non-profit organisation that develops technology “for and with” displaced persons. Founded at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, the organisation works with the technology sector and volunteer community to develop digital innovations that help refugees access information, work, and healthcare, and supports their social integration.

With employers in dire need of technology talent, Burman argues they can and should tap into this potential by removing the barriers that refugees face in accessing training and employment.

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What makes refugees adept at innovation?

Refugees are well-represented among high-profile innovators. WhatsApp, the world’s most popular instant messaging app, was founded by Jan Koum, an Ukranian refugee who migrated to the US with his mother escaping political unrest and antisemitism. Language learning app Chatterbox was co-founded by Mursal Hedayat, an Afghan refugee who fled to the UK with her mother at a young age.

One explanation for this, says Burman, is that the journey they face in leaving their homes and carving a life in a new society imbues refugees with three traits that are vital for innovation.

The first, as embodied by Khalifeh, is tenacity. Founding a technology start-up is a ‘hero’s journey’, Burman says. “It is fraught with failure and it has many, many challenges around getting access to finance and access to market. Now, one of the abilities that refugees do have given that they are migrating is that they have incredible tenacity. Their perseverance is unbelievable.”

When you are at the bottom rung, you have the ability to train your eyes to look at things in a very different way that maybe you and I can’t see.

The second is the ability to spot opportunities for ‘frugal innovations’ – a gap in a market that can be addressed with a simple workaround. “When you are at the bottom rung, you have the ability to train your eyes to look at things in a very different way that maybe you and I can’t see,” says Burman.

Thirdly, refugees apply a global perspective to their work, he says. Refugee-founded start-ups draw on their diverse cultural experience to bring fresh ideas and innovation to established markets, Burman argues.

How can businesses support refugees?

Despite this potential, a number of challenges prevent refugees from finding work in the technology sector. One of these is access to digital skills, including coding and cybersecurity. This is why Techfugees is working with organisations and partners such as Cisco and Google to provide the necessary skills that can help them land the right job or develop their products. “At the end of the day, it’s finding the right fit of that individual at the right time to make a difference,” Burman says.

Techfugees also organises international hackathons in which refugees work with developers, designers and volunteer entrepreneurs on digital projects that aid displaced communities. It provides long-term support for these projects by establishing partnerships with local organisations. According to Techfugees, a third of the projects created in its 2020 hackathon are still ongoing.

But the greatest challenge for those who had to flee their countries in a hurry – often under extremely dangerous conditions – is an absence of legal documents that confirm their identity. Because many of these people are fleeing conflict and persecution, they cannot approach their homeland embassies asking for identity cards or passports.

Under the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1954 Statelessness Convention, refugees and stateless people have the right to a Convention Travel Document in the state in which they are lawfully residing. But this extraordinary measure, and the delay that obtaining these documents often entails, can be perceived negatively by recruiting companies.

There are a few steps companies can take to avoid blocking candidates from a refugee background entering into their workforce, says Burman. Firstly, they can recognise the value of displaced people in enriching employee culture and diversifying their workforce.

Refugees are often portrayed as a burden to their host countries – but there is plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite. According to a European Commission report from 2017, integrating refugees in their destination countries leads to GDP growth.

Similarly, research by McKinsey showing that in companies with more diverse corporate leadership, profitability goes up and outperforms competitors. “Companies, boards and CEOs need to understand that embracing refugees within the workforce is a good thing that leads to their sustainability,” Burman says.

Secondly, Burman also calls on organisations to remove biases from their recruitment processes, whether they are human or automated, to ensure that a candidate's status as a displaced person does not influence the outcome of their job application.

"I think companies need to realise that [there is unconscious bias] in the hiring process and the tools that they are using [AI, machine learning] to make sure that [the bias] is lifted and ensuring an equitable and a fair way of recruiting employees and refugees from this space," Burman advises.

Before employers take these measures, though, a change in mindset is required, Burman acknowledges. “Where I see the real opportunity is supporting the economics of migration,” he says. “That narrative needs to be applied much, much more and we are looking to work with partners that want to do that."

Techfugees is looking for partner organisations who can help switch the narrative on refugees, while making the digital economy more innovative and more sustainable. “We want to amplify the real opportunity of the untapped human potential and of skillsets within the refugee and displaced communities to play a big part in contributing to the digital society rather than being perceived as a burden,” adds Burman.

Cristina Lago

Associate editor

Cristina Lago is associate editor of Tech Monitor.