Creating A Refugee-Ready, Refugee-Friendly World

The world–unstable, warming, and increasingly connected–needs not only to respond to this refugee crisis, but to be better prepared each and every time. Co.Exist‘s week of refugee stories looks at a few ideas for how.

Creating A Refugee-Ready, Refugee-Friendly World
[Illustrations: Made by Radio]

In New York City next week, world leaders will come together to discuss the world’s refugee and migration crisis, both at the United Nations General Assembly and as part of White House-led summit the next day.


The sad truth is that the scope of the refugee crisis is so large that–unless a miracle occurs–no matter what gets decided in these meetings, it won’t even scratch the surface of what’s needed.

Nearly 34,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution, according to the UN. Together, that has created 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, including 21 million refugees, more than half of whom are under age 18. This population represents 1 in every 110 people in the world; if they made up a country, they would be among the world’s top 25 in population.

Spurred particularly by war and conflict in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, these figures are unprecedented in modern times, but they are clouded by misconceptions. We think of Europe as the center of the crisis. And while it has been the 1 million desperate people who have crossed (or tried to cross) the Mediterranean Sea, mostly into Greece, who brought the world’s attention to this human tragedy, the truth is that 86% of the world’s refugees are housed in developing nations, with Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia at the top of the list.

Few nations have behaved admirably in this mess, many bowing to fears of terrorism and balking at enormous funding and logistical needs (aid for humanitarian and refugee-response needs related to Syria’s crisis alone, for example, remains $4.5 billion short of what’s required this year). Many believe that Europe’s deal to secure its borders by sending arrivals in Greece back to Turkey undermines its human rights standards and the principles of asylum law. Kenya had been on the verge of sending 338,000 people in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, back to Somalia, because they view the camp as a terrorist breeding ground. In agreeing to resettle 85,000 refugees this year, and only 10,000 Syrians, the United States falls far short of the number of people the richest nation in the world could be taking in. Worldwide, only a total of 107,100 refugees were admitted to any country for official resettlement last year, leaving nations that happen to neighbor crisis areas to shoulder most of the burden.

Still, there are rays of light. To name a few: Canada’s inspiring private resettlement program, Brazil’s humanitarian visas that allow asylum seekers to travel safely, Germany’s and Sweden’s attempts to maintain relatively open arm policies despite fierce internal opposition, Jordan’s EU-backed experiment to create a special economic zone that will employ thousands of refugees, and Uganda–only the 104th largest economy globally–having one of the most favorable refugee protection systems in the world.

While these are all limited solutions on their own, they show that what is needed is a fresh way of thinking. The refugee crisis isn’t a crisis that can ever be “solved,” because even one day when the Syrian war is over, there will be another one that follows. The world–unstable, warming, and increasingly connected as it is–will always have refugees, displaced people, and, increasingly, migrants who may not leave their homes because of war or persecution but simply because they lead lives of desperation and follow a human instinct to seek better for themselves.


In a series of stories we’ll be publishing this week, Co.Exist will be looking at ideas and initiatives that create opportunities for these groups of people. The stories are based on the premise that this is not only about solving a discrete problem in front of us: about the hundreds of thousands of people knocking at Europe’s door or stuck at Jordan’s border cut off from the world. It’s about creating a refugee-ready, refugee-friendly world, and modeling how nations and people can respond to future crises each and every time.

One story looks at how we can improve how we predict refugee flows ahead of the next crisis. Another examines designs for refugee housing that create a more affordable, flexible housing stock for local residents, too. We look at how businesses can create programs that train and employ new arrivals, and how the aid community should support refugee-led initiatives that build long-term capacity and resilience rather than dependency.

These are just a few stories that we’ll be publishing this week. We hope you’ll agree that they present a positive counterpoint to the sense of hopelessness that talking about today’s refugee situation tends to bring.

You can come back to this page to find new stories as they are published. And as always, let us know what you think by emailing

The Missing Voices In The Refugee Crisis Response: Refugees Themselves

Around the world, organizations led by refugees are aiding their own people in ways only they know how. Is it time they get more support?

Being a refugee means your life hasn’t gone as you planned.


Robert Hakiza, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had just completed his studies at university and was employed as an agriculture advisor in Goma, when violence forced him and his family to flee in 2008.

Mohammad Mahdi, from Afghanistan, dreamed of studying political science and management. But this wasn’t possible as a refugee in Iran, where his family fled to when he was eight years old. He scraped by as an electrician and tailor and later migrated to India and then again to Malaysia in search of a life where his refugee status wasn’t all that defined him.


Predicting The Break: How Nations Can Get Ahead Of The Next Refugee Crisis

The flood of people into Europe took leaders by surprise. But with better forecasting systems, maybe the next “crisis” can be averted.

Europe’s leaders were so caught off guard by the refugee crisis when it first erupted in 2014 that the German city of Cologne—overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers that November—bought a luxury tourist hotel for $7 million to house some of them. It would only get worse. The whole of Europe, in fact, was shell-shocked (and who wouldn’t be at the sight of Aylan Kurdi?).

The big question now, for governments, migrations researchers, and analysts, is: Can we do better next time?



The Science Behind Inspiring More Support for Refugees

How the same online voter targeting strategies used in U.S. elections are being deployed to build support for the refugee cause.

The rainbow-themed ads began popping up on Facebook in early 2016. “Homosexuality Is a Crime in 77 Countries,” read one with a rainbow-colored globe. “All Over the World LGBTI People Are Facing Prosecution,” said another with a rainbow border above two men kissing as an angry mob approached. Another showed a rainbow being blocked from setting over the Kremlin and talked about the “ideological wall” of Russian politics. Yet another had one large rainbow-colored fist, raised in defiance. All featured the hash tag #RainbowRefugees.

In total, eight different #RainbowRefugees messages went out to gay-rights supporters on Facebook who were living in zip codes with high voter turnout during the last presidential election. They were created by the Hive, a special projects group inside the U.S. branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose mission is to provide refugee advocacy, aid, and assist with asylum.


How To Make It As A Refugee In America

The story of refugees in America isn’t new and, in many ways, represents the classic American dream.


Despite the U.S. aiming to admit 85,000 refugees this year–the most accepted in more than a decade–the odds of getting in for any given refugee entering this country are extremely low. Each must pass a rigorous screening process (involving iris scans and in-person interviews) conducted by the UN and multiple U.S. government agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center and State Department. After arrival, life often gets better, but it’s a far cry from the increasingly distant comforts of “home.”

Manyang Reath Kher knows that reality all too well. One of the Lost Boys of Sudan, he wasn’t even old enough to walk when he was orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War. A kind woman, a stranger, scooped him up and carried him into the Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia.


Refugees Wanted: Meet The Companies Creating Jobs For The Displaced

From Chipotle and Starwood to a small business in Kansas City, companies large and small are learning that hiring refugees helps the bottom line.

When Charly Ngoma arrived in Arizona as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he’d never eaten a burrito before. Three months later, he had a job at Chipotle. Now—after a year and a half, and two promotions—he’s general manager at one of the restaurant’s locations in Phoenix.

“Everything I saw my first day was new,” he says. “I didn’t know even the name of the ingredients they use in English. I was just writing down everything.”


One reason for his success was his own motivation and hard work. But Chipotle also partners with the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, to recruit refugees. Without the partnership, it’s unlikely he would have even heard of the job.


The Radical Plan For A Global Identity System For A World With Shifting Borders

Some 1.5 billion people lack a legal identity. The blockchain technology that underpins bitcoin could be the answer.

When refugees and migrants leave their homes behind, they may give up their possessions and livelihoods and often something else: their legal identity. They cross borders without proper documentation or their passports are lost or stolen along the way. German police said recently that 80% of Syrian refugees in that country didn’t have the right paperwork.

The lack of official IDs has compounding effects. Refugees can be shut out from social services or denied access to financial funds sitting in their home nations. Host governments have to issue new documents, which is expensive, takes time, and is open to fraud. And, for refugees, stuck in ad hoc accommodation, no identity means, in effect, that they are not only homeless, but, in a sense, anonymous.



How Europe’s Influx Of Refugees Is Inspiring Creative, Affordable Housing For Everyone

Designers are finding unusual ways to house refugees by integrating them into communities—while pushing the envelope on affordable design.

When hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants started arriving in Europe in 2015, many cities started quickly building simple shelters, sometimes repurposing old shipping containers as temporary places to sleep instead of tents. But these makeshift sites were also often on the edges of cities, isolating the arriving community from other residents and any sense of normalcy.

Designers are now working on longer-term solutions that can help arrivals better adjust to their new lives—and potentially improve housing for entire societies.


Nations Have Been Terrible At Welcoming Refugees. Should Cities Take Over?

In many places, cities have been more progressive about opening their arms to refugees and migrants. But there are limits to their power.

Last year, Spain pledged to take 17,680 people from the influx of refugees into Europe, as part of a two-year plan from the EU to redistribute 160,000 refugees entering the Union. And yet in March this year it had only relocated 18 people. But while Spain’s right-wing president Mariano Rajoy was reneging on his promise, the mayors of Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s biggest cities, couldn’t wait to help.


Ada Colau, Barcelona’s activist mayor, has called the Spanish government “immoral” for its refusal to help refugees. Catalunya, the Spanish province of which Barcelona is the capital, has offered to accept 4,000 refugees directly, but the Spanish federal government has blocked the refugees’ entry. More than a dozen Spanish cities have discussed setting up a network that allows residents to volunteer their homes to refugee arrivals.


Can Syria’s Refugee College Students And Professors Reboot Their Classrooms In Chaos?

The Jamiya Project is an ambitious blended learning program that aims to help refugees pursue their college dreams.

Syrians who have fled their country in recent years differ in a significant respect from any other refugee population in recent memory. They have, on average, higher levels of education than displaced Afghanis, Eritreans, or Sudanese, and they also have higher expectations: Before the conflict began, about a quarter of Syrian high school graduates went on to university.

While the exodus to Europe has received greater attention, millions of displaced people now live in countries neighboring Syria, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. It’s estimated that 100,000 Syrian refugees have had their higher education disrupted, far more than the local universities can accept. Prohibitive tuition costs and language barriers have also contributed to this education crisis.



About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.