How are startups helping refugees?

Bernardo Montes de Oca
May 11, 2023

There are 32.5 million refugees globally. That population is larger than Malaysia and, unfortunately, will only keep growing. Among these millions of displaced people, some want to create something that can make the world better. We might not have associated startups with the refugee crisis but these two have more in common than you might think. In fact, startups could be crucial for refugees now and in the future. 

It’s hard to visualize 32.5 million people being displaced from their home countries, but the number could be much higher as tracking refugees is close to impossible. Plus, worsening geopolitical situations have accelerated the number of refugees in recent years, increasing by 52% since 2021. What’s more devastating is that 69% of the world’s refugee population comes from five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Unfortunately, as of late, countries such as Ukraine have also contributed to this sad figure. 

One of the biggest problems for these millions is their situation forcing them to flee without organizing their paperwork. No one has time to focus on issues such as paperwork when their lives are at stake, but this very same issue complicates their reality. Many might not have a passport, which renders them stateless, making it almost impossible to get a job. Still, there have been efforts to provide refugees with jobs in all corners of the world for years. 

Let’s look at an example. Esmeraldas is one of Ecuador’s poorest provinces. At the same time, it’s a corridor for refugees who flee from conflict in other South American countries. At one point, it saw the migration of more than 24,000 people, including asylum seekers and refugees, which presented a problem. Locals had negative attitudes towards them, as they felt refugees would take away their jobs. However,  leaving them with no jobs also meant other possible social conflicts. So, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) created a program that was the first of its kind in Ecuador. 

The idea was to create a process by which refugees could integrate themselves into Ecuadorian society while helping develop the province and generating other opportunities through business incubators and startups. 

Through these, refugees and asylum seekers can access opportunities that would otherwise be impossible. The program launched in 2018 and has helped 26 startups and small businesses take off. Plus, it has also helped these companies stave off failure. Startups in Esmeraldas have a 95% fail rate within two years, while the UNHRC-PUCESE supported businesses had just 15%. A small effort has shown that refugees and locals can work together. 

This case also reflects a bigger situation. Many regions with a high refugee population are usually near conflict zones, or less-developed regions, which makes implementing a business model challenging. Still, the problem isn’t only regional. Other factors can lead to more challenges. For example, most of the refugee population on a global scale comes from diverse ethnicities and religions, which can play to their disadvantage. 

According to founder Yama Saraj of SensAI, a sports hardware startup, one of the easier ways for a refugee to overcome challenges is simple: get a white male cofounder. If this isn’t possible, then it’s time to take matters into your own hands. Saraj, an Afghan refugee, worked hard to become a VC and now has the goal to help refugees in the situation he was in a couple of years ago. 

Other efforts to help refugees have appeared all over the world. For example, in 2022, the Human Safety Net and La Ruche, a French NGO, created a startup incubator for refugees to help those with refugee status acquire the skills needed to develop their businesses. The goal is to help 60 refugees, and the program, which is currently in its third iteration, has proven successful.

Unfortunately, even bright minds cannot overcome challenges like when politics get in the way. One founder, Rami Kalai, perfectly embodies this situation. Though he has managed to cofound a startup, as a refugee, his nationality comes into play. He’s originally from Syria, which meant he couldn’t travel to the US to meet with VCs due to the travel ban at the time. 

Due to challenges like these, there’s a global effort to help refugees be a part of startups. One of the world’s most significant efforts is the Startups Without Borders initiative, where founders, VCs, and companies help refugees and migrant entrepreneurs find the tools to thrive. In addition, they hold one of the most important summits in the world, the Startups Without Borders Summit, which features more than 3,000 startups  that address global challenges, drawing on the unique perspectives of those who have faced extreme adversity. Only with their perspective can the world reap the benefits of inclusion. 

There’s no denying that the startup world is challenging. Still, it becomes even more filled with adversity when considering what refugees go through. Immigrants and refugees play a crucial role in startups, with 55% of unicorn startups having an immigrant founder. Moreover, the global situation is likely to worsen as more and more refugees are fleeing their countries as w conflicts in Ukraine continue to escalate,and the Syrian conflict is seemingly without end. Yet, amongst the millions, there are brilliant minds who can change the world, and startups and incubators can provide them with the necessary ground to achieve those goals.

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Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable. From start-ups to nature, from literature to aviation. Hearing impaired, so let’s talk loud and clear.
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