IKEA, DPDHL and Unilever are among the companies that are responding to the needs of refugees in camps bordering Syria

While more than one million refugees made it to Germany millions more are living in refugee camps in countries bordering Syria. That’s where many European companies are targeting their efforts.  

One of the first is IKEA, which is taking an initiative to encourage social entrepreneurship – begun in India five years ago – to the epicentre of the refugee crisis. Together with its partner, the Jordan River Foundation, the aim is to find women who have craft skills, or want to learn them. Vaishali Misra, business leader for social entrepreneurship at IKEA Range & Supply, says it will work with locals too. They “really welcome” the business partnership, because they have borne the economic pressures caused by the influx of refugees into the cities. It’s not the first time Ikea has worked with refugees and migrants: the Ikea Foundation has some seven partnerships this part of the world.

‘We believe trade is good and it is sustainable. I’ve been to the refugee camps in Jordan and met the women and more and more my realisation is that [trade] is the best way,’ says Mishra.

The limited range of textile and carpet designs produced here will be sold at its new Jordan store, and exported more widely, perhaps eventually to Europe. She accepts there are reputational risks. “When we started in India people asked if we were looking for cheap labour.” On the contrary, she argues, it’s a big investment and demands a lot of energy: ‘It takes time to get the skills and get the craft.’ Hopefully the programme will leave the women more independent: ‘If women are empowered the whole family is empowered ... and the first thing they want is education for their children’.

Solar powered tents

The IKEA Foundation, is also funding the solar power plant at a refugee in Jordan’s northerly Azraq camp. The plant, which was switched on last month, is providing electricity for 20,000 Syrian refugees, who’d previously struggled with the most basic activities because their access to electricity has been sporadic since the camp opened three years ago.

The IKEA Foundation's solar installation in Azraq camp (credit: IKEA Foundation)

It also makes their lives safer, with the added boon of employment. Fifty refugees were trained and worked to build the plant; some of them will now maintain it. Once it’s operating at full capacity, it will meet all Azraq’s electricity needs, and any extra generated by the solar farm will be sent back to the grid to support the energy requirements of the wider community.


DPDHL is also looking for ways to encourage education in the refugee and transit camps of the Middle East. “We want to make sure their time on the move isn’t wasted in terms of education,’ says Christoph Selig who heads up DPDHL’s longer-term Go Teach programme, in which DPDHL employees help build skills in their communities. This global initiative involves partnerships with two NGOs: Teach for All, a network of over 40 independent organisations working to improve access to educationand SOS Children’s Villages, which works with millions of children who have lost one or both parents. 

In the latter programme DPDHL employees mentor young in their villages. Selig hopes that the experience of providing access to education and employment against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis can, in the future, be put to good use in Jordan: “We can make a good economic argument for doing this,” says Selig. “If we can manage to help people start their own businesses, they become the sources of the good people we need everywhere.”


Other companies have found some unexpected and unmet needs in the refugee camps. The experience of two American doctors treating Syrian refugees with burns and feet badly cracked from hundreds of miles of travel on unforgiving terrain led to Unilever’s Vaseline healing project.

The initiative, run in conjunction with international aid organisation Direct Relief, puts vaseline products and medical supplies into clinics, emergency medical backpacks and kits for displaced families.  

Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for international development

In 2015 and 2016 the Vaseline Healing Project sponsored two dermatological missions, providing treatment for almost 1,500 patients in Jordan, including in refugee camps in Zaatari, Madaba, Irbid, Zarqa, and Ramtha.

Such is the plight of those refugees, that Unilever has now extended the programme in partnership with the Jordan Health Aid Society so that each of the Jordanian camps will get the services of a volunteer dermatologist for several months.

Last month, Direct Relief managed to ship nerve agent antidotes to Syrian doctors, alongside emergency medical kits that contain Vaseline products.

Unilever also joined more than 70 other private sector partners and NGOs in the Tent Partnership, which was launched last year in Davos to harness the resources and ingenuity of the private sector to end the refugee crisis. To join the Tent Partnership, companies have either to create employment opportunities for refugees, or use their supply chains to do so, or provide direct aid.    

What’s clear is the scale of the challenge is vast, and money alone isn’t enough. Companies need to pool their knowledge and infrastructure and take some risks. But those who are making the commitment are certain it is enhancing their reputation.

This is part of Ethical Corporation's briefing on the corporate response to the refugee crisis. See also:

Refugee crisis: What the West gains from a warm welcome

Refugee crisis: IKEA at heart of Swedish response

Refugee crisis: CEOs in push to restore American Dream

Refugee crisis: German firms heed Merkel's plea for help

UNHCR  Syrian crisis  Tent Partnership  Jordan River Foundation  Direct Relief  Human rights 

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