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As migration rises, finance can pave the way to benefits for all

Non-profit organisations are connecting small lenders and those in need of cash, believing that giving refugees the legal right to earn a living not only cuts the costs of caring for them but also benefits those among whom they live.

In the capital of Uganda, where refugees have the legal right to work, one in five refugees runs a business employing other people – and 40 per cent of those staff are Ugandans, according to a leading microcredit financier.

Giving refugees and other migrants the legal right to earn a living can not only help them launch new lives and cut the costs of caring for them, but it can also benefit those among whom they live, said Premal Shah, president of Kiva, a U.S.-based nonprofit that connects small lenders and those in need of cash.

“We need to see how (migration) can be a win for the host community,” said Shah, whose organisation has channeled more than $1 billion in loans since 2005.

If a migrant is perceived as someone who “takes away” from the local population, then opportunities will be missed, he told a gathering of social entrepreneurs in Oxford this week.

Worldwide, 258 million people are international migrants, including 65 million people forcibly displaced by conflict, disasters and other pressures, according to the United Nations. About 22 million of them are classed as refugees.

But those numbers are expected to be dwarfed in years to come as sea level rise and worsening extreme weather linked to climate change drive more people from their homes.

Finding ways to help migrants restart productive lives that also produce benefits, not just costs, for their new communities will be crucial to global stability, experts said on Wednesday.

“We have to create a safe environment for people to succeed,” said Robert Annibale, who runs “inclusive finance” for Citigroup Inc.

The truth is “no ocean is going to be wide enough, no wall high enough, to stop people seeking protection and opportunity,” he told the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

No ocean is going to be wide enough, no wall high enough, to stop people seeking protection and opportunity.

Robert Annibale, inclusive finance lead, Citigroup Inc. 

Refugee voices

Sana Mustafa, a refugee who fled Syria in 2013 and now lives in the United States, said a first step in getting refugee policy right is to give those on the move a voice in decisions made about them.

With other refugees, she last year set up the Network for Refugee Voices, a coalition of 40 refugee organisations with the motto: “Nothing about us without us”.

“Development projects for 50 years for refugees have been done without us,” said Mustafa, whose father was arrested and disappeared in Syria and whose mother and two sisters are now scattered across Turkey, Jordan and Germany.

The network is taking part in the design of a new U.N. compact on refugees now under negotiation.

Citigroup, in turn, is working with young refugees in places like Jordan, Greece and Nigeria, to channel investment for them to start businesses, Annibale said.

It has also helped create an alliance with U.S. mayors from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities with large numbers of migrants to smooth the path to full citizenship for 8.8 million foreigners who are also permanent U.S. residents.

Most of those eligible are on low incomes, and citizenship status would help smooth the path to better-paid jobs, scholarships and other benefits, Annibale said.

Shared gains

Fully 37 per cent of New Yorkers, 39 per cent of Los Angeles residents and 58 per cent of Miami’s population were born in another country, Annibale noted.

“People migrating from elsewhere is nothing new,” he said.

But their arrival can cause resentment in the places where they settle, particularly if the newcomers get special help.

In Lebanon, which hosts about 1 million registered Syrian refugees, microfinance group Kiva is tackling the problem by helping local lenders arrange loans to small teams of Syrian and Lebanese borrowers, introduced to each other at social events.

Shah said making loans to refugees may not be “the most appealing thing” for banks trying to manage risk. But if local people can be involved, and profit too, “there’s a social cohesion that starts to form”. 

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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