Davos reminds us, where there is risk there is opportunity

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The list of 21st century concerns is long and mind-boggling: think terrorism, populism, corruption, disruption. 

Helpfully, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks our anxieties in its annual Global Risks Report, and one year ago, as Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam arrived at its renowned annual meeting in Davos, she found her area of expertise was at the top of the 2016 risk list: large-scale involuntary migration.

Characterising refugees as a ‘risk’, however, struck Professor McAdam as mistaken. She was attending as one of the WEF’s Young Global Leaders (YGLs), a community of next-generation leaders who collaborate, learn from each other and take action during five-year terms. McAdam and other YGLs met ahead of the conference and set about changing the narrative from refugees presenting risks, to refugees presenting opportunities. 

They engaged Davos participants to reframe their view of forced migration, focusing not on populist security concerns – the perceived risk to host communities – but rather on the risks refugees themselves are fleeing from, and how they, as resilient, determined and driven individuals, can offer so many opportunities: economically, culturally, socially and personally.  

Their strategy worked, with media, politicians, business leaders and celebrities responding positively. It also proved to be in tune with many of the stand-out speeches of Davos 2016, worth revisiting in the context of this week’s meeting. It is  playing out again in this year’s program, not least with the return of Crossroads’ renowned refugee simulation, which has world leaders crawling, running and cowering as they seek to escape violence and uncertainty. As one CEO said after the experience: “Reading a thousand books would not have taught me what I learned in the past hour.”  

Here are some highlights from Davos 2016:

The founder of Chobani yogurt, Hamdi Ulukaya, whose workforce now comprises 30 per cent refugees, explained that he was moved to act about six years ago when he was shocked by a documentary on the plight of Yazidi refugees from Iraq. 

He went to a refugee reception centre in upstate New York and said if anyone was in need of work, he was willing to offer jobs in his factory. Many desperately wanted jobs. But it looked impossible: how would they get to work when there was no transport available to his factory 30 miles away, and many of the refugees did not speak English. 

Ulukaya immediately set about hiring buses and translators. It wasn’t cheap or simple for the company, but Chobani’s refugee employees have proven to be remarkably dedicated, loyal and hardworking. Because of Chobani, they have been able to build a new life, with jobs that connect with the local community. 

“When these people work together, they start sharing the same goal, and by doing that they start building their lives,” he said. (Hear Ulukaya speak about his experience from about 4.05 minutes into the video.)  

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his personal connections with refugees had affected him deeply. “We need societies that recognise diversity as a source of strength and not of weakness,” he said. “When I welcomed those first [refugee] families to Toronto last month, I welcomed them as new Canadians, and as the future of the Canadian economy.” (Trudeau speaks about diversity from about 6 minutes into the video.)

The then French Minister of Economy, Emmanual Macron, now an independent candidate for the forthcoming French presidential elections against the far-right populist Marine Le Pen, tackled Europe’s approach to refugees at Davos 2016. Macron observed that the EU needs to enhance the Schengen system, not fragment it, because this only pushes refugees elsewhere. He also stressed the need for a common European approach, noting that “more cooperation – with Turkey, with Lebanon, with Jordan – is absolutely critical.” (See this part of the discussion at about 30 minutes into the video.)

In the WEF’s 2017’s Global Risk Report, ‘large-scale involuntary migration’ has been pipped at the post by ‘extreme weather events’.  The two can be linked, however.  As Professor McAdam noted in a recent speech, there are more people displaced by disasters each year than there are refugees.

These and other refugee issues are prominent in the Davos discussions this year. Here are some of the insights:

Tupperware chairman and CEO Rick Goings picked up directly on the narrative of the opportunities refugees and migrants offer, with his post ‘Stop telling immigrants to assimilate and start helping them participate’.

Olympic athlete Yusra Mardini’s post ‘I swam for my life, I swam in the Olympics, and now I want dignity for all refugees’ is powerful: 

“There is no shame in being a refugee if we remember who we are… that being a refugee is not a choice. That our only choice was to die at home or risk death trying to escape. It was the choice between a bomb and drowning at sea.

So, who are we? We are still the doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, students we were back at home. We are still the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. It was violence that made us orphans. It was war that made us terrified parents, sacrificing everything to save our children from carnage. It was persecution that drove us from our homes in search of peace.

That is refugee. That is who I am. That is who we all are, that growing population of people without a country. This is my call for us all to take a stand now, together.”


One year ago, Professor McAdam and other YGLs organised a Davos event called afternoon called ‘Refugees: From Risk to Opportunity’ featuring Dr Khalid Koser, the head of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration.  

The idea was to provide a rational ‘middle ground’ approach to the refugee issue in Europe, putting the numbers of people moving into perspective, but also recognising the need to respond to concerns about security and acknowledge other fears by providing accurate information.  

Dr Koser spoke of the polarization of the discourse on both sides of the debate, the lack of political leadership, and the media’s tendency to rely on anecdote instead of data. This year, Dr Koser writes with hope and hard truths about the year ahead. 

The Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law’s research, independence and integrity enhanced the debate and continues to inform the global discussion.

Professor McAdam says: “Our global challenges are complex and interconnected. Davos reminds us that we live in a world of risk, of course, but also of tremendous opportunity.”