All refugees need fashion’s support. Ukraine efforts offer some answers

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Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, over 2.9 million citizens have fled, becoming refugees overnight, with the majority heading to neighbouring countries including Poland, Romania, Hungary and Moldova.

In response, fashion brands in the UK, Germany and Australia are stepping up to support refugees with employment opportunities. It’s not a simple process, but if successful, the efforts could serve as a blueprint for companies to support refugees from other countries that have faced conflict, human rights violations or other events disturbing public order in recent years. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 82.4 million people were displaced at the end of 2020 including from Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan. The number continues to rise.

In the UK, a coalition of 45 businesses has been formed to offer incoming refugees dignified employment and long-term support as they resettle and regain control of their lives. Coordinator Emma Sinclair is the co-founder and CEO of recruitment software Enterprise Alumni, and an advisor to G7 and Unicef. Her father’s family fled to the UK from Ukraine years ago to avoid persecution. In the last week, Sinclair has rallied businesses willing to employ incoming refugees, including Marks & Spencer and Asos.

“The infrastructure to support refugees at scale doesn’t exist, but it’s being worked on,” she says, fresh out of a meeting with the UK’s newly appointed minister for refugees, Richard Harrington. Public business support is crucial to pressure governments to act quicker and support refugees once the infrastructure is in place, she adds. “The government has a big job to do, but businesses have a role to play, too.”

Available roles are varied. Lush will be hiring 500-600 seasonal staff from May, and has longer term roles open including spa therapists, warehouse and retail assistants, web developers and forecasters. A spokesperson for Asos says the retailer is working with partners across Europe to find roles. It is particularly interested in tech engineers, a skillset Ukraine specialises in, and is licensed to offer certificates of sponsorship.

Red tape, racism and xenophobia, and infrastructure are key challenges, but observers say efforts to employee Ukrainian refugees could be a successful pilot programme for widening future refugee support. “It’s fantastic that governments are looking at supporting Ukrainian refugees, but it’s a tragedy that the response has not been echoed for Syria, Yemen or other countries facing crises,” says Tamara Cincik, founder and CEO of think tank Fashion Roundtable. “This support should be applauded, but it needs to become a consistent scheme.”

Cutting the red tape

“There’s a tremendous will in government to burn through the red tape,” says Sinclair, referencing the slow and complex processes that often prevent refugees from resettling and accessing dignified work. For example, those entering the UK on a technical visa need to complete an English language test and tuberculosis screening before arrival, which are not possible when fleeing a warzone.

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