Building the case for refugees

“We are looking for a self-starter, innovative thinker who will challenge the status quo.” This phrase is often seen sprawled across almost every job posting you may encounter nowadays. When employers write it, who do you think they have in mind? Who are our most innovative employees? The answer: refugees.

Does this surprise you? If so, join the many. Refugees are typically viewed as a burden to the countries they resettle in often leading to discrimination from their resettlement communities and workplaces. Their lived experience and refugee identity is seen as a “liability” rather than as an “advantage.” Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy Annique Un implores readers to consider the latter. She asserts that the refugee resettlement journey uniquely equips them with the qualities necessary to flourish as innovative employees when given the chance.

We sat down with Un to learn more about her research in this space and her co-written article with Chhomran Ou, and Silvy Un Lafayette titled, “From the liability to the advantage or refugeeness” for The Journal of International Business Policy. Answers have been slightly modified for clarity.

Who are refugees?
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. Refugees leave in search of safety, in a hurry, and with few resources (International Rescue Committee, 2021; for a recent review, see Un et al., 2022). Refugees are a type of migrant with a legally recognized and protected status.”

Can you explain the refugee resettlement journey?
The refugee resettlement journey is comprised of three stages: identification, selection and transfer, and reception and integration. In the identification stage refugees register with UNHCR to obtain refugee status. In the selection and transfer stage, refugees are rigorously audited by the protection country to be chosen for resettlement. In the last stage, refugees are settled into their protection country. While the reception stage is short-lived, the integration phase can take years. 

How are refugees impacted by this journey?
Research has found that along this journey, refugees develop three unique characteristics: courage, perseverance, and resilience. These characteristics are chronologically interrelated. A refugee experiences courage, perseverance, and then resilience. The sequence is informed by their “one-way ahead attitude of needing to act and overcome the extreme challenges of destitution and discrimination” experienced along their journey (Un, et al., 2022).

How does this outlook inform how they approach the world of work?
Refugees adapt a frugal mindset along their resettlement journey. Prolonged lack of resources in the refugee camps and the initial years in the resettlement countries implore refugees to tap into their creativity out of pure necessity. This mindset does not necessarily go away once resettlement and integration has occurred. Refugees often continue to operate creatively, efficiently, and resourcefully whether that be in their personal lives or work lives. The frugal mindset is the basis of their innovative approach to work.

How have refugees positively impacted resettlement countries, communities, and work organizations?
Research indicates that in resettlement economies, refugees are beneficial to their host-country economies within five years (d'Albis et al., 2018), and they are more likely to be employed or become entrepreneurs than local nationals (Beiser & Hou, 2001; New American Economy, 2017). This is a result of the qualities they adapt along their resettlement journey as referenced prior, in conjunction with the frugal mindset.

Qualitative and quantitative research exemplifies the benefits refugees have on their resettlement countries, yet they are continued to be seen as a burden. Can you please provide ways organizations and individuals alike can uplift refugees to combat this notion?
One way is to help increase the awareness of how they thrive and contribute to their host countries by encouraging more people to talk about it. People with a large platform, such as the CEO of Uber, can leverage their social media reach to increase awareness by telling their own refugee stories. You or I could also elevate refugee stories on our own platforms as well. Representation goes a long way, and the more the public is exposed to refugee success stories, it can help to mitigate negative preconceived notions.  

Your favorite entrepreneur might be a refugee

The assertion that refugees are assets to their resettlement countries is not exclusively proven through research but can also be proven with these real-life examples. From Jan Koum the founder of WhatsApp, David Tran the founder of Sriracha, to Sergey Brin the co-founder of Google, refugees are demonstrated trailblazers that have changed the world.

Additional Resources

Visit Northeastern's dedicated page for more on this topic.

International Student Fund for Ukraine