"Let Us Look at Refugees as Entrepreneurs"

The futures of global order, the global migration and refugee challenge, and the role of cities in global governance – these are the topics of this year's dialog forum Global Governance Futures, GGF 2030. Fellows from nine countries work together on topics of global reach and formulate policy recommendations looking ten years ahead into the future. Thiago Assunção from Brazil and Sayid Abdullaev from the USA are members of the migration and refugee working group and explain their background and ideas.

Robert Bosch Stiftung | July 2018
Matthias Erfurt

The two Fellows Thiago Assunção and Sayid Abdullaev talked with Dirk Schmittchen, Senior Project Manager at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, about global migration and the challenges of the current refugee crisis (left to right).

Sayid, let us start with you: Looking into the future, what do you think will be the trends and drivers for migration in 2030?

Sayid Abdullaev: Of course, the current refugee crisis is an important issue and it is hard to think about what is going to happen in 2030 without addressing what is happening right now. It is very important to learn the lessons of today so we can be better prepared for the future. I can observe a lack of accountability and a lack of responsibility by the international community because they were not prepared for the refugee crisis and there was no clear definition of how we were going to share the responsibility of this crisis.

For the future, I therefore see the need to redefine the model of shared responsibility. What is the role of the private sector, what is the role of civil society, what is the role of states? Having a proper model would allow us to be very clear and prepared for when it comes to working with refugees, addressing the refugee crisis and distributing resources.

However, we also have to look at the issue of climate change as a driver for migration. Now we are experiencing that in Central Asia and in South Asia the reason for many internally displaced people to move to another place is climate change, and we keep seeing this trend more and more. Therefore, as an international community, we need to come up with a definition of how to describe people who are migrating because of climate change. Can we call them refugees? What are the criteria to call them refugees? We need to come up with a legal definition and terminology on how to address this situation.

Moreover, we also need to change the framework on how we talk about refugees, because now we see many people talking about refugees as a burden, as people who just go to another place and take all the resources. However, I would like to propose looking at refugees as contributors to their host communities. So how do they have an impact on the local economy? Let us look at refugees as entrepreneurs. Let us look at the way they use the disadvantages and pain they face when going to another country to make a difference not only in their lives but also in the lives of the people in their host countries. Therefore, it is going to be very interesting to look at how Syrian refugees will have contributed to their host countries such as Germany or France by 2030.

Matthias Erfurt

Sayid Abdullaev is an associate product marketing manager at Google, where he works on marketing and communication strategy for the Google Analytics products. Motivated by his personal experience as a refugee, Sayid is harnessing the power of technology and big data to develop a Digital Refugee Empowerment Center that will serve as a resource hub for programs and policy related to capacity building and advocacy for refugees. He has been recognized by multiple organizations and foundations for excellence in global activism.

Thiago, you are from Brazil, but you have worked in Europe a lot. What are the challenges, Europe is facing in terms of dealing with the current refugee crisis?

Thiago Assunção: I believe Europe is really being tested with the mixed flow of refugees and migrants nowadays. Europe’s political values built after the Second World War are also being tested, namely the rule of law, human rights and democracy. In my opinion, there is a considerable interest of the international community on how Germany is dealing with this challenge, since the situation in Germany differs from other European countries as Germany is receiving a much greater number of asylum seekers. Germany is showing that it is capable as a nation to take the lead and face this challenge, which I think is the biggest displacement challenge since the end of the Second World War.

At the same time, we have seen a rise of populist movements with some parties and politicians exploiting public emotions and giving a voice to myths related to migration. As Sayid said, I think we should overcome this distinction, this binary thinking among humanitarian assistance and economic development. Indeed, refugees had a life before they came to the host country, they were entrepreneurs, nurses, engineers, and by accepting and integrating them, I think Germany has a lot to gain, even economically.

Can you tell us a little more about what the situation for refugees looks like in your home country?

Thiago Assunção: Brazil has been improving policies on refugee protection issues in the last ten years. We created an innovative policy, which is called the “humanitarian visa”. It was tailored to address the big influx of Haitians fleeing from a devastating earthquake in 2010, which killed more than 100.000 people. We used the same solution for Syrian refugees fleeing from the war and arriving in Brazil. The Brazilian government has established an open door policy for Syrians as they started to come to Brazil and they received a humanitarian visa. Once they were in the country, they could apply for refuge. That policy was included in a new migration law that passed in 2017 which replaced the former law that was approved in the time of the dictatorship. The new law has a human rights approach and it was approved in a bi-partisan way in Brazil following many discussions with the civil society. This law also simplified the lives of migrants in Brazil, for example by allowing students to work. It also helps in terms of economic development because we have so many expatriates from multinational companies working in Brazil. To sum it up, the new law modernized the migration system in Brazil. However, there are still some shortcomings. For example, right now the federal police is responsible for all migration issues. Nevertheless, the role of the police should be to investigate crimes and it is a questionable procedure that migrants have to go to the police when they need to deal with bureaucratic issues. I believe we should create a national civil authority for all matters related to migration instead.

In addition, immigrants do not have the right to vote. On a global scale, I do not know many countries that provide this right to immigrants, but looking at it from a Latin American perspective, many countries in Latin America do allow migrants to vote, which is not the case of Brazil. Finally, just like many other places in the world, we do suffer from xenophobia, racism, and discrimination against migrants and refugees, and I think we should invest more in education and raise awareness in the society to the fact that Brazil is and has always been a migration country. Almost every Brazilian is  descendent of a migrant, from many different countries, so I think we should work on that to show the Brazilian public what it is like to be a migrant or a refugee, in order to increase solidarity with migrants.

Since we are talking a lot about the role of states, what role do international organizations actually have in all of this?

Thiago Assunção: I believe that lots of new actors have entered the international stage, participating in human rights discourses, and this is leading to a gradual decrease of the preeminence of the state as the main actor in international relations. Nowadays, not just states but also other non-state actors like NGOs, social movements, and the private sector have an increased influence on international relations issues. Personally, I believe that there is considerable room for international organizations to exert influence because they are able to select the best professionals in their respective expertise areas. Those people are being selected from many different countries and are committed to improving international development cooperation, peaceful settlement of dispute and human rights standards. Therefore, when talking about governance we should include and strengthen these international organizations.

Matthias Erfurt

Thiago Assunção is assistant professor of international relations at University Center of Curitiba (Unicuritiba), Brazil. He participates in initiatives on migrants and refugee integration in Brazil and has previously worked for the government of the State of Paraná on human rights policies.

Sayid, you were a refugee yourself and ended up in the US. Can you tell us a little more about your story?

Sayid Abdullaev: I belong to the third generation of refugees, so my grandparents were refugees in China. They then left China because they were scared of persecution due to their ethnicity, and they fled to Kyrgyzstan. I left Kyrgyzstan and arrived in the US by myself when I was 15. Although it was very interesting, it was also hard to be in a new country all alone.

However, in the US I was not defined by my circumstances, I was defined by my possibilities. I knew what sacrifices my grandparents and my parents made, so I wanted to take advantage of this new opportunity. My grandparents were political prisoners because of their activism. My dad was a political prisoner. Being an activist is therefore part of my DNA and I take it very seriously. So for me talking about refugees is not a matter of academic analysis, it rather touches my real life. When I arrived in the United States a lot of Americans did not have a clear understanding of the various countries refugees come from because they thought of refugees as only coming from African or Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, it was very interesting for many American citizens to see someone like me coming from Central Asia. I had a great experience with my host families. First, I lived in Arizona, then I lived in Idaho, then I went to school in Philadelphia and finished the graduate school and now I live in New York, so I had a very interesting journey through the United States. Nevertheless, when I arrived in the US I realized there are hardly any resources available to asylum seekers or refugees.

That is the reason why I created a movement to collect all the kinds of resources available to asylum seekers and refugees and categorize them according to required needs. For example, if you are an LGBT asylum seeker you need different resources, because when you go to a homeless shelter you need to make sure that the homeless shelter is LGBT friendly or refugee friendly. Therefore, in our catalogue we list those resources specifically for LGBT refugees. If you are a female refugee, you might need a different service. This availability of different resources tailored to the specific needs of distinct refugee communities did not exist when I arrived in the United States. I am now working with various organizations and different companies trying to set up platforms and networks to solve this problem.

You are working in the tech sector. What is and will be the impact of technology on migration and integration?

Sayid Abdullaev: It is a very exciting time to work in the technology sector, especially when we look at what is going on in the world and in humanitarian affairs.

Technology democratizes the access to resources for refugees. For instance, 90 percent of Syrian refugees have a mobile phone although Wi-Fi is hardly available. The mobile phones are important because when refugees arrive in their host countries, above all they need access to information. I initiated a project called “refugee connect” where we created a database with different resources for asylum seekers in the United States. This database connects asylum seekers with pro bono lawyers and host families. That is one example of how technology helps refugees. These new trends in technology can also really simplify the procedure of resettlement, because right now it takes a long time for refugees to get to refugee camps or to go through immigration processes when they arrive in the country where they are seeking asylum. However, technology is not only providing resources for refugees to be able to resettle. It also supports international organizations, which are working with refugees or states, in ensuring that refugees are resettled and have access to information and resources. Although, when we talk about technology we have to talk about the dark side of technology as well. In the wrong hands, it can result in the surveillance of refugees and limit refugees’ rights to privacy and other human rights. It is an interesting balance.

You are both part of GGF 2030 and this program has just started here in Washington, DC. This is the first of four sessions, what are you personally expecting from this program over the course of the next twelve months? Is there something you are really looking forward to?

Thiago Assunção: GGF is a spectacular and unique program. It brings together people from different cultures with various professional backgrounds, to look into the future with a solution-oriented mindset and ask what we can do to deal with crucial global challenges. I am eager to contribute to this program from a Brazilian and Latin American perspective, with my working group on migration and refugee challenges, in a way where we can work together and gain a common understanding of future scenarios and options available in terms of global public policies. I believe that it’s an honor, it’s an incredible opportunity to be here discussing those issues with colleagues from all over the world in this one year long project. I am sure we will be learning a lot from each other and gain a lot from this multi-cultural perspective. From the very beginning of GGF onwards I quickly realized that although it can be really challenging to co-create global policy proposals together with other fellows with such various backgrounds, it is truly a unique opportunity to be part of this cross-fertilization experience, which will certainly lead to exciting and new outcomes. This is what I expect and I am looking forward to welcome all 27 GGF fellows in Brazil in January 2019 for the third session of this program.

Sayid Abdullaev: I am super excited to be here and I am very grateful to the Bosch Foundation for hosting us here in Washington, DC. I am really excited to meet all the GGF fellows because all of us are from different professions and different fields, but I really want to get to know the fellows as friends and stay in touch. In ten to twenty years from now, we will all be in positions where we can hopefully change the world to the better and it’s really great to have those contacts to the other fellows supporting each other. Second, I see this program as a contribution to the worldwide discourse on global governance issues. The reports we are working on will hopefully be read by influential people, government employees, and members of foundations who are in the position to make the right decisions. Therefore, it’s a huge responsibility for us to make sure that our reports and our policy related enterprises are valid and contribute to existing global discourses. And I am really excited to travel to all countries participating in GGF to see how global governance operates in India, in Brazil, and in Germany.

The Global Governance Futures program

Matthias Erfurt

The topics of this round’s working groups are the futures of global order, the global migration and refugee challenge, and the role of cities in global governance.

The Global Governance Futures - Robert Bosch Foundation Multilateral Dialogues program (GGF) brings together fellows from nine countries: three each from Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, and the United States to work in three working groups on topics of global reach and to formulate policy recommendations looking ten years ahead into the future. The fellows are joined by experts who participate in the working groups’ discussions during the GGF sessions taking place in Washington, DC, New Delhi, Sao Paulo, Paris, and Berlin over the course of one year from May 2018 to May 2019.