Responding to the Refugee and Migration Crisis with Impact Investing


Photo from Flickr Commons All rights reserved by Christian Aid Images

Impact investing has a role to play in the response to the refugee and migration crisis. Both seasoned investors and new entrants who are looking for ways to have meaningful influence beyond philanthropy could consider investment vehicles to drive private sector support for the response to the refugee and migration crisis. Humans on the Move was founded to provide the private sector access to ethical and non-exploitative return-seeking solutions to the practical and tactical challenges that have arisen from an unprecedented period of global migration. We take a collaborative multi-sector systemic approach, looking for both medium and long term investments that have the ability to shift the paradigm around the response to the refugee crisis.

Rather than having a geographic focus we apply an analysis and implementation framework developed during prior work of our co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Lina Srivastava, and segment geographies into Sending, Transit, and Receiving communities. In summary, the analysis is that while each city and country may possess unique laws and political situations, the needs of refugees and migrants in those communities in their status of migration are equivalent regardless of borders. For example, the countries that make up the Northern Triangle in Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, experience similar violence and lack of economic development that Afghanistan does. While there are populations that absolutely must flee, there are certain segments that could stay if the economic environment was more resilient. Therein lies an opportunity to identify scalable solutions with some modifications that can be applicable to both regions.

There are a broad range of strategies towards investing in the response to the refugee and migration crisis, and below we have highlighted three examples of how impact investors could leverage direct investments to drive change. While we are discussing strategies below focused on alternative investments, we do have some audacious goals in exploring what a total portfolio strategy would include. This is the beginning of a much larger and broader conversation, Humans on the Move is positioned to lead, on how investment decisions have impacts on lives around the globe as well as our own backyard.

Placed Based Investment and Debt

There are opportunities for investment in sending, transit and receiving communities. For example, there are increasing numbers of resettled refugees from Syria in the U.S. that have an interest in restarting their businesses that they had before the war in their new home. However they lack access to traditional lending sources here in the US, often need more than micro-lending can afford and less than banks are willing to lend. We are currently working with a national resettlement agency to set up a pilot fund to lend to resettled refugees in the Southeastern United States. Comparatively, in Afghanistan there is a growing social entrepreneurship community that is providing direct investment opportunities, albeit with a different risk profile. The program in Kabul is working both with residents and those who are returning migrants.

Social Impact Bonds

Globally, NGOs and governments are struggling to provide education to refugee children, which is required under the 1951 Refugee Convention. There isn’t enough capacity in local schools and there is a lack of programming that can be brought to school age children who reside both in and outside of camps. Increasing, without access to education children are ending up in human trafficking situations both for labor and sex. A social impact bond could provide a measurable and meaningful avenue to increase educational capacity for transit countries who are looking ways to decrease the burdens on their local school systems.

Social Entrepreneurs

Through the growth of social entrepreneurship globally, there are companies that are ready to scale who can provide turn-key solutions to refugees directly, the NGOs and governments that serve them. Humans on the Move identifies those opportunities and then sources the solutions that are the appropriate fit for the market and scope. Once that connection is made however, the social entrepreneur often requires additional investment and/or a working capital loan to ensure they have the capacity to scale with the demand.

We formed Humans on the Move, to assist our peers and others in rethinking the response around the refugee and migration crisis. Leveraging the burgeoning growth in socially and environmentally impactful companies to surface connections between the needs of the humanitarian and public sectors and the capacity and desire of social entrepreneurs to scale. Impact investors play a critical role in providing the capital these entrepreneurs need to reach this new marketplace, and we are positioned to help to the private sector broaden its impact into the world’s most vexing challenge.

Check out Humans on the Move for more information and if you are interested in receiving our expanded white papers on this topic and others contact us  and sign up for our newsletter here.

This article was written by Christine L. Mendonça originally posted on Humans on the Move's Medium page on April 4, 2017. 

Spotlight Series: CILD

Originally posted on March 24, 2017

Humans on the Move is launching “Spotlight Series,” our new series highlighting groups and people making waves to positively address migration and refugee issues around the world. Enjoy our first installment:

In early 2015, the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD) launched Open Migration, an initiative that provides data and analysis on migration and refugee issues. “Back then (prior to 2015), the migration and refugee crisis was very emotional, in the sense that everybody thought it was a tragedy, of course, but everything that was put into the debate — especially by politicians — was just toxicity,” says Antonella Napolitano, Head of Communications for CILD. “We felt that the narrative was completely ideological, and completely detached from facts, numbers and the actual scope of the phenomenon.” To address this, CILD created Open Migration to develop a holistic knowledge base about the factual realities and the human aspects of a topic that is often generalized or even mischaracterized in media and policy.

CILD is a coalition of organizations working on human rights and civil liberties issues in Italy through advocacy, lobbying, and legal action. The organization plans to create a new center this year that will offer free legal information to the public and promote legal action and litigation either by supporting organizations already doing this work or by taking these tasks up on its own. Napolitano explains, “Human rights and civil liberties are interconnected and interdependent, so it makes sense to work together across the whole spectrum of human rights. Many organizations are working on migration issues. We try to amplify what they do, and we help with partnership building and connections to international organizations.”

Open Migration, one of CILD’s main projects, provides journalists and the media, civil society organizations, policymakers, and the public with access to glossaries, infographics, multi-weekly posts, and a web review featuring a curated list of the top ten articles on refugees and migration of the foregoing seven days. CILD has quickly gained recognition in Italy and beyond for Open Migration because it forces the public to confront preconceptions about migration and refugees. Napolitano saw this firsthand at a recent literature festival when CILD hosted an information booth where attendees took quizzes that tested their knowledge on topics such as the refugee crisis in Italy and Islam in Italy. For example, the real number of migrants coming into Italy is a third less than what the media had been citing. She tells us, “People were drawn in because they were curious… and it was a way to challenge their assumptions. There were people that were critical, saying things like, ‘We want to help but there’s just too many.’ or ‘These people are stealing our jobs!’” The quizzes, based on actual data, demonstrated that facts differ from popular perception.


Data visualization from

Open Migration’s focus on the gap between perception and fact allows for a dialogue to be nurtured and demonstrates the role and responsibility that the media plays in the public consciousness. When journalists are more aware of where migrants and refugees are coming from, and the realities of the situations they are fleeing, the narrative shifts, Napolitano explains. “We’ve been noticing over time that there are a number of stereotypes that are no longer used, or used much less. And so you push on, and the narrative slowly changes. Nobody would go on TV now and say there are 5 million people coming in this year, the correct numbers have been circulated and repeated so much they are known.” CILD’s advocacy efforts along with Open Migration’s focus on data are playing a major role in how information and advocacy are presented in the refugee and migration crisis.

The challenges that come from working on migration in the current global climate are still massive. Populism, Napolitano says, is here to stay. “I feel that even the moderate parties are chasing those people electorally…even from center right or center left…so you have to be ready to challenge the kind of talk that seems smaller and sensible, but in the consequences might be harmful in a different yet significant way.” Napolitano warns that we’ve seen these issues before, and the lessons learned are that we should not be pitted against those who have challenges, or submit to fear or anger. To avoid indifference to the plight of those who have less opportunity and less of a voice, we must show solidarity and challenge mainstream views that make us comfortable.

Napolitano believes that the best way to move forward and have these conversations is to challenge with facts and move forward in a manner that shows an openness to discussion and partnership. Taking strong stances and working transparently both inside and outside of political systems is also necessary. In the wave of populist nationalism that has made itself known in various countries recently, rhetoric has become the biggest weapon of all.

What can people do to help? “I’d say be ready to act, to go into the streets if it’s needed,” says Napolitano. “And I feel it will be needed very soon. Challenge the views that make you comfortable. What we’ve been seeing is that language that is moderate can hide. Challenge these predominant views and think of the consequences of what has happened… it has happened before in Italy, and in Europe.”

Learn more about CILD’s work and explore Open Migration.

Humans on the Move is honored to have CILD as a partner organization. Read more about our panel at The If and When of Technology for the Global Refugee Crisis at Personal Democracy Forum 2016, and our joint event Cities for All: Integration, Innovation, and Investment at Impact Hub Milan.

My City Istanbul | Stories of Belonging

What kind of a city do children want to build together? Young children, Syrian refugees and local Turkish children living together in Istanbul’s Tarlabaşi neighborhood told the world their answers to this question in the stories they created during the “My City Istanbul” workshop.

Fatma with her VR cardboard at the Tarlabasi Community Center, Istanbul, Turley

Of the many issues concerning both displaced communities and host countries in the current global refugee crisis, one of the most crucial is community integration and social inclusion. This is a problem that must be addressed with care and creativity.

With more people on the move today than ever in our recorded history, the global refugee crisis is posing one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time. A large contributing factor to the current crisis — the largest number of people on the move since World War II — is Syria’s ongoing civil war, which since its start in 2011 has created nearly 5 million refugees. Most of the refugees have fled primarily to neighboring countries and to Europe.

There are currently more than an estimated 2.7 million Syrians refugees resettled in Turkey*, making it the world’s nation with the largest community of Syrians displaced by the ongoing conflict. A majority in Turkey do not live in camps but are resettled in cities and towns**. This population requires effective solutions toward registration, accommodation, and integration and inclusion.

This latter challenge of community integration is a massive one — but discussions of integration with regard to the refugee crisis were largely absent from media and policy circles until 2016. While citizens and civil society organizations have been responsive and in many cases welcoming to refugees, a rapidly shifting policy environment, uncertain legal statuses for refugees, and strained resources have caused rising societal tensions. In this environment, refugees — especially children — are at risk for isolation, loneliness, conflict, and, in the long-term, for falling off the path toward education and livelihoods. Creative solutions are needed to reduce these risks, and to provide local receiving communities with support towards inclusion.

Katy and Oscar of VRTOV, and myself, doing a VR cardboard demo with Fozi, Muhammad, Cansel, Aynur, and Ayse

My City Istanbul: The Project

Within this context, I worked with Jeff Anderson of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul to co-design a program with Melda Akbas at the Tarlabaşi Community Center for local and refugee children, aimed at exploring community integration and belonging through art, creativity, self-expression, technology, and collaboration.


The result is “My City Istanbul.” We designed and delivered this project to aim at integration through collaboration between refugee children and local children living in the rapidly-gentrifying and central neighborhood of Tarlabasi in Istanbul, Turkey, using creative self-expression in an exploration of their situation as co-habitants of the same city. Our international set of project partners, including the virtual reality studio VRTOV and the media production company Noya International, came together to deliver a workshop that employed virtual reality (VR), film, image, comics/graphics, dialogue, skills building, and collaborative storytelling to engage the children in the social process of creating artworks together that reflect their hopes and dreams for a shared future in the same neighborhood.

Oscar of VRTOV scanning Rima in front of our icebreaker portraits

The goals of the program are:

First, to address community inclusion and integration through the social process of collaborative media production and storytelling;

Second, to expose the children to new media technologies, including VR, by putting it directly into their hands; and

Third, to have the children tell their stories to a wider public, thereby creating a more intimate, personal, and human portrait of refugees and the communities that receive them.

The Workshop

The children, 20 all together, 10 Syrian and 10 Turkish (with one child speaking a Kurdish language) ranged in age from 8–14. Their names are Fatma, Judi, Jud, Zeynep, Ada, Nergis, Ayse, Zuhal, Gulsun, Cansel, Aynur, Muhammad, Ali, Ali Resim, Seyithan, Fozi, Sidra, Dima, Rima, Amjad, and Semira. They were selected to participate by the Community Center, for their facility with media and their prior relationship to the Center. Many of the kids went to school together already. Many of them blew us away with the level of talent and creativity they were already demonstrating.

They each brought their vast intelligence, energy, and creativity with them to work and play with us. They each rapidly demonstrated their quick wit and personalities — which you can see in their finished stories — with only a few remaining reticent throughout the process for reasons we could only guess. We were careful to frame story brainstormings and dialogue in largely positive, forward-looking terms, with only one question aimed at looking at the homes they left behind (for the Syrian children) or at putting themselves into the shoes of someone who might have to leave (the Turkish children) — and the responses to this particular question were poignant and moving, and guided our story scripts.

Over the course of three days, the children created a series of short films, images, cartoons with the original characters The Alien Astronaut and The Happiness Monkey — characters that are meant to welcome and guide you through Istanbul, and that are perhaps largely allegorical for the children’s situation.

Displaying the Children’s Stories

One outcome of the project — which we hope will be the precursor for a workshop series in other European cities facing similar issues of refugee integration — is reflected in the media and stories the kids created, and their distribution.

Seyithan filming his video.

Videos. We released 15 short videos directed by the children on the project’s Twitter account. Through a relationship with Twitter Video, several of these were distributed by Twitter. We also distributed some of them on our Facebook page, laid out the videos as their own story on Storify, and released the full set of videos edited together on Facebook to recognize the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants.

We also released a behind-the-scenes case video on Twitter and on Facebook.

Shaarik Zafar, Jeff Anderson of the U.S. State Department enjoying the kids’ VR experience

Exhibit. Following the workshop, the youth participants presented their work at an event at Tarbalaşi Community Center, with attendees from the U.S. State Department, their families, representatives from their school and municipality, NGOs working on refugee issues, and some international and Turkish press. The children were able to display their images, cartoons, and VR experience. A second exhibit and event is currently being planned for the south of Turkey to showcase the program, and to forward discussions on integration.

Samira and Mohammad with the 3D scanner

VR. All of the images and cartoons the kids created during the workshop were combined with 3-D scans of them to form a collaboratively produced short interactive VR experience. VRTOV post-produced this into both an interactive version (for exhibit) and a web-based VR display, and created a virtual gallery of the kids’ work, along with their partially visible faces (to protect their identities), and a soundtrack of their wishes and thoughts — in English, Arabic, and Turkish — for how to build their new homes and new city.

We have released the VR experience the day of the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants as a call to participants to remember the hopes and dreams of all children caught in this crisis, including those who have been resettled.

The Project’s Outcome

The outcome of the workshop is reflected in the stated perceptions of the children who experienced it and the strengthening of their shared community. In the words of one child participant, “Now we will be able to speak to each other. Before we didn’t know how or if we should.”

The workshop put innovation directly in the hands of refugee and local kids and grounded them in self-empowerment. It wasn’t as important to jump on the current VR wave so much for the novelty as it was important to put VR into the kids’ hands. It allowed kids to work together by using tech and creativity to build bridges. And it unleashed their imaginations about the city they currently live in together, but also led them to gently explore the impermanence of place, focusing on what they left behind (for refugee kids) or what they would have to leave behind (the local kids) to create shared empathy and to understand where they’re going together in their new community. This kind of personal engagement helps open up avenues of expression that may lead to shifts in the children’s self-perception and their ability to comprehend their circumstances. All of their stories reflect a sense of longing to belong, and a keen eye for understanding their surroundings.

The project allowed them to exhibit their work to their community and to representatives of international organizations. Working together, the children gained a sense of belonging, collaboration, and visibility with their communities in Istanbul. At the end of the process, the children expressed a newfound sense of community with each other.

This kind of community integration is vital for mutual understanding and community resilience. Through collaboration and creative storytelling, and through the exercise of learning new skills and using emerging media tools, the children were engaged to build a shared vision of what their future and their city can be.

Fozi and his VR cardboard creation

Nurturing the Refugee Tech Ecosystem

Humans on the Move, is a new group bringing together viable strategies for managing the globe’s refugee problems through enterprise, creativity, and investment within the existing civil society, philanthropy, and business ecosystems. New and retooled technology solutions are a critical component, specifically technology that works under the inconceivable demands of people without countries, carrying a bag of possessions or less, using shared phones, often without reliable electricity, internet access, shelter or weather protection. Tools made in Western labs or hackathons are usually flops when they meet the brutal demands of refugee camps, no electricity or carrier access, sea crossings, border controls. The majority of the best solutions are being invented by those who need them. Humans on the Move is working to identify the actual viable solutions and supporting them via philanthropy, investments, technical support or whatever is the best way to nurture them most effectively.

Similar to business start-ups, the immediacy of now is often too pressing for solutions to come from top-down global agencies or corporations, but the best of them watch for what trickles up to them and then put them to use at a mass scale they can afford. Also similar to business start-ups, those closest to the target customer - usually the people who have walked alongside refugees or are refugees themselves - are making the most impressive products. Efforts from all supporting parties must be focused on what actually works, and not what seems exciting on a whiteboard or in a weatherproof office with constant power and fast internet. And marketplace solutions that are financially sustainable providing the service should be prioritized over grant-dependent solutions that go away when the grants are no longer available.

One of the more fascinating areas where technology is meeting the needs of the refugees in a genuinely impactful way is helping victims return to a level of normal. People are fleeing from war zones arrive to refugee camps with wounds that require more than a bandage and sutures. Refugee Open Wareproduces low-cost, 3D-printed prosthetics, working extensively with 3D MENA Social Innovation and National Syrian Project for Prosthetic Limbs to reach the refugees in Jordan. They have a blended organization with both charitable and for profit investment arms. The power of the solutions they are able to provide is exemplified in this film of a Syrian boy receiving a 3D-printed custom made prosthetic hand. Refugee Open Ware’s next goals are to build two fabrication labs in Jordan, one in Amman and another between the Irbid and Mafraq refugee camps. These organizations have an impact beyond their customers, for example, a Syrian refugee who voluntarily helped maintain the 3D-printers is now leading Arduino and DIY robotics classes in Germany. Another product made by Refugee Open Ware was a low-cost hand-based echolocation camera and haptic guidance device for a blind people to wear to be told via taps of the environment around around him/her, but we haven’t seen its success at scale.

Syrian refugee Asem Hasna and students at his class in Berlin

Syrian refugee Asem Hasna and students at his class in Berlin

One of the biggest, and yet to be solved problems is validating an individual’s identity as they transfer across international borders often without passports. A leapfrog solution has been deployed within Jordan by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who iris scan all new arrivals. This translates into far less paperwork and a durable identity that can move with the person that could eventually span the globe. That iris scan is also being used for a powerful secondary purpose. There are currently 23,000 Syrian refugee families that receive $127/mo from the UNHCR. Disbursals had been problematic before when done via cash (due to graft) and even after they were assigned bank accounts and ATM (due to card loss or selling of the card). Now, in coordination with the Cairo Amman Bank, families’ money is disbursed from special retina-scanning ATMs meaning the full amount is always received and withdrawn by the recipient family.

Iris scan of a syrian refugee at the Zaatari camp in Jordan. Pic by Engadget

Iris scan of a syrian refugee at the Zaatari camp in Jordan. Pic by Engadget

At the recently closed Idomeni refugee camp in Greece one individual took the connectivity problem on his own shoulders. He built out a wifi network that supported 960 people at a time. Still too small to have met the full demand of the camps roughly 15,000’s residents, but enough for everyone to get key messages in and out every day, or full Internet for anyone that stays up late. It’s also independently powered to avoid being at the mercy of the camp’s power supply. And he did it all for 5,000 euros. But this solution while valiant worked just at a single place. What is the business solution to providing a net of access across entire regions?

Homescreen for for people in German

Homescreen for for people in German

To meet humans’ on the move quenchless desire for information, Mercy Corp, the International Rescue Committee and Google built RefugeeInfo.eubased upon the simplistically brilliant open source project Crisis Info Hubthat uses Google Docs as content files for low-bandwidth websites. A RefugeeInfo user selects their current location and is shown up-to-date info for food and shelter options, asylum requests, legal aid, local resources and medical assistance. The site uses simple HTML and shows text and links to make page loading fast even under the worst connections. And all site content is kept up to date on the back end by support teams simply editing google docs. New language support can be added by simply translating existing docs into that language.

Another very low-bandwidth service was created by a group of Germans has become the Couch Surfing of refugee housing. Now running in 10 countries,Refugees Welcome, allows local residents with room to spare to offer it to people in transit. So far they’ve matched 811 families to shared flats. (It’s available in Canada but not the US). In the United States, there isEmergencyBnB, providing services for both refugees and victims of domestic abuse looking for a place to stay.

One caveat in the development and support of technology for refugees is the fact that these people are fleeing for their lives, literally. Considering their privacy and security in using applications and devices is paramount. Which means their might need to be new revenue models and considerations put into place to ensure solutions do not put individuals into more danger. But big solutions are out there as well and the smart companies should know that while humans on the move may not have money now but they’re all survivors and the customers and entrepreneurs of the future.

Humans on the Move will be organizing convening to take place within larger events focused on the refugee challenges the world is facing. If global warming trends remain the same it’s widely forecast for their to be even more large-scale involuntary migrations. We can’t see the future, but can we prepare to have the tools to solve the challenges that will continue to arise. If you are interested in supporting this further please contact us at Humans on the Move. The founders, Christine Mendonca and Lina Srivastava will be at the following September events if you want to speak in person: UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants; Ford Foundation Convergence; Donor’s Forum; Mentor Capital Network Annual Gathering.