Cooperatives and refugees

How workers' cooperatives can help tackle the refugee crisis

On 8-10 November, an international conference in Turkey discussed, among other issues, ways in which cooperatives can help the growing number of refugees and migrants in today’s world. ILO News spoke with Simel Esim, head of the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit.

Feature | 09 November 2015
The number of refugees has reached record levels around the globe. What role can cooperatives play in helping refugees cope with this situation?

The latest UNHCR figures show a dramatic rise in the number of refugees around the world, reaching 13 million in 2014, with half of them in Asia. This number does not include the 5 million Palestinians who have been refugees over many decades in the Middle East. Today, Turkey alone is estimated to host more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees.

Cooperatives have been put to good use by refugees and host communities at different stages of intervention from the start of the crisis to integration in their host country. They step in providing direct assistance for refugees and delivering basic goods and services. Cooperatives can be set up specifically for refugees or the latter may join existing cooperatives in growth oriented sectors of the host country’s economy.

We have seen for instance refugee women establish financial and artisanal cooperatives in host countries with support from local and international agencies. In a number of host countries cooperatives moved to support refugees. At a recent event here in the ILO, it was reported that Italian social cooperatives provide 18,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants with services and projects in 220 welcome centres and 170 dedicated housing structures.

What is the added value of cooperatives in supporting refugees?

Cooperatives are enterprises that are based upon self-help and mutual aid. The most important feature of a cooperative is that people can join forces instead of trying to do it alone. There are many types of cooperatives engaging in services, marketing, financing, defending workers’ or consumers’ interests. Cooperatives create jobs, promote self-employment and access to a wide range of affordable services, including savings, loans, remittances, childcare, training, health care and many more. And last but not least, cooperative members share a feeling of ownership.

In a crisis situation, host country governments are often overwhelmed. Hence local community based solutions are needed. Starting a cooperative will not be a panacea solving all the problems, but it can make a significant contribution in helping refugees to escape poverty and find a job, while distributing resources on a fair base.

Refugee camps and services in refugee camps can be run cooperatively, with the participation of refugees as members and decision makers. Refugee and host communities need to be informed of the benefits of cooperatives in creating economies of scale, ownership and control among members and cohesion across communities by refugee associations. Agencies like the Danish Refugee Council have promoted the establishment of producer cooperatives in countries like Uganda. Through its Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative, the World Food Programme has been procuring staple items for emergency food assistance to refugees through producer cooperatives in 20 countries.

What are some examples of cooperatives engaging in recent refugee crisis?

In Germany, which has received the largest number of Syrian refugees among EU member states, the number of asylum seekers has gone up by 132 per cent compared to last year. Housing cooperatives in a number of German cities such as Gelsenkirchen have started reserving larger homes for refugee families and consciously renting them to Syrian refugees to help them integrate and benefit from the social support system.

Another example are 200,000 of the nearly one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who have settled in the Akkar region in the north of the country, doubling the population of one of Lebanon’s poorest regions. Here, the agricultural sector constitutes a major source of income, employing one-fourth of the workers. UNDP and ILO have supported the establishment and growth of a Green House Nursery cooperative, which treats, grows and sells seeds at an affordable price in the region. The cooperative benefits 200 Lebanese farmers and Syrian refugees.

Can cooperatives also play a role when refugees return home to rebuild their country?

In many countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Timor-Leste, El Salvador, Guatemala, Lebanon, The former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Nepal, cooperatives have played a critical role in post-conflict reconstruction by creating jobs for returning minorities and ex-combatants, rebuilding businesses and homes, giving refugees and internally displaced persons ( IDPs) access to markets, and facilitating reconciliation and peace building.

In Sri Lanka, the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) worked with Sri Lanka’s financial cooperatives to expand access to finance for people living in rural and conflict-affected areas. Sri Lanka Women’s Development Co-operative Society, a network of more than 120 branches owned and operated entirely by women has benefited from this support ranging from group lending and insurance to health and education services.

Also in Sri Lanka, the ILO’s Local Empowerment through Economic Development (LEED) project helped the victims of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war by supporting them through cooperatives: fishermen who lost their boats are now back at sea, and farmers are learning to get better yields and war widows are running businesses.


Co-operatives and World of Work Research Conference

 The International Co-operative Alliance (the Alliance) and the ILO are co-hosting the International Research Conference on Cooperatives and the World of Work in Antalya, Turkey, on 8-10 November 2015. More than 100 researchers from around the globe will discuss how cooperatives can contribute to the creation of decent work. The event will cover a wide range of issues, including cooperative and labour legislation, worker cooperatives and trade union relations, gender equality and women's empowerment, and innovation and sustainability in cooperative enterprises.