From Ikea to Hollywood: How UN Aims to Change Hearts on Refugees

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UNHCR goodwill ambassador and actress Cate Blanchett and formerly stateless refugee Maha Mamo at the UNHCR's Executive Committee meeting, at the United Nations in Geneva, October 7, 2019.
UNHCR goodwill ambassador and actress Cate Blanchett and formerly stateless refugee Maha Mamo at the UNHCR's Executive Committee meeting, at the United Nations in Geneva, October 7, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA – Under heavy security, some 3,000 people packed into the Palais des Nations in Geneva for Monday’s opening of the first Global Refugee Forum, sponsored by the UN High Commission on Refugees and several countries.

A sense of urgency mixed with despair could be felt during the discussions in the corridors and at the various sessions. At the entrance to a restaurant, the representative of a German refugee aid organization told an Italian colleague about an act of violence against a refugee he was trying to help. The Italian hissed some curses against the extreme right in his country. Nothing will help with those racists, said the German, and the Italian nodded in assent. A few moments later they were photographed together smiling, and the Italian posted the photo on Instagram.

To a great degree, that encounter expressed the spirit of the entire conference – despair with politicians and an effort to sway public opinion on social media – out of a deep understanding that the world is in the midst of the worst refugee crisis it has ever known, with more than 70 million people displaced by wars, conflict and persecution.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi addressed the opening session, noting that as the old conflicts fester and new ones erupt, displacing millions of people, the world needs to come up with intelligent, inspiring, involved and embracing ways to help both the refugees and the countries hosting them, and that everyone has a role to play.

One innovative way that Grandi seeks to pursue is harnessing the business community to a task that many governments have neglected. Thus, at a festive press conference on Monday evening, alongside senior officials from the commissioner were representatives of Ikea and Lego, who declared their commitment to employ and donate to thousands of refugees throughout the world. Ikea announced that by 2022 it would employ 2,500 refugees in 300 stores in 30 countries. The Lego Foundation, meanwhile, announced a grant of $100 million for educational solutions based on children’s games for preschools and elementary schools.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis at the UNHCR-Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, December 17, 2019.Credit: Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool via REUTERS

More than a hundred other corporations and foundations from around the world are expected at the conference. The United Nations agency said that the business sector has an increasingly critical role in providing resources for the refugees, and boasted that donations worth more than $250 million had been pledged in the run-up to the conference for education, job training and job creation, and pro-bono legal assistance for the refugees. Companies, said Grandi, are prepared to do more.

In Israel, asylum seekers could only dream about such support from the business sector. There are a handful of projects operated by the Center for the Advancement of African Migrants together with a few high-tech companies seeking to employ asylum seekers as programmers. The goal is to integrate 15 asylum seekers into Israeli high-tech by the end of next year – a somewhat less ambitious plan than Ikea’s.

Those scheduled to address the conference on Tuesday include Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada and Pakistani Prime Minister Imra Khan, and the commissioner is hoping to hear the same type of good news from them that they’ve heard from the businesspeople.

But whether politicians announce significant measures to help those seeking refuge in their countries or not, the UN agency sees great importance in changing international public opinion and is investing considerable resources to do so. On Monday a new social media campaign was launched by the commission, in which celebrities such as Cate Blanchett and Ben Stiller call on the public and on governments to take responsibility for the refugees in their countries and change the attitudes toward them.

The commissioner is well aware that while they have succeeded in persuading stars from the 1990s and Ikea to fight with them for a better future for refugees, international public opinion of them remains negative. But the commission is not giving up. It has even opened a TikTok account and is pushing on Instagram to try and attract young people to their content.

The main message the celebrities convey in the campaign’s first video is that every voice and every action counts. “Xenophobia, negative stereotyping and fear are on the rise,” the celebrities and refuges in the video say. “Something needs to change. It is time to see refugees differently. To see that refugees, when given a chance, and the opportunity … can reach [their] potential, can have a positive impact, and can give back.”

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