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How we’re standing with refugees through Covid-19 and beyond


Learn more about our product donations, activism, advocacy and entrepreneurship programmes

Overhead image of a camp

In the past few months, we’ve been told repeatedly that washing our hands with soap is one of the best ways to protect ourselves from Covid-19 and help prevent the spread of infection.

So imagine how it must feel to go through the pandemic without access to soap or clean water, and with no hope of physical distancing or safety in isolation.

It’s the reality faced by millions of refugees all over the world. Humanitarian relief agencies warn that displaced people are among the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society – and they’re at great risk of being left behind during this crisis.

That’s why – as a business and through our brands – Unilever has been taking steps to help refugees through the Covid-19 crisis and into the future. As we mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, here’s how we’ve been supporting some of the planet’s most vulnerable people…

Donating products to communities in need

In March, we announced a commitment to provide free hygiene products and food items to the value of €100 million to communities in need around the world as part of Unilever's Covid-19 response.

We have already dispatched significant donations to UN agencies including the UN children’s agency, UNICEF and UNHCR (the UN refugee agency). The donation to UNHCR is one of the largest in its history, with more than 30 million bars of soap plus hand sanitiser, surface spray, disinfectant and laundry detergent reaching more than 40 UNHCR operations around the world to help improve sanitation and hygiene and slow the rate of the virus’s spread in refugee and host community settings.

Since the pandemic took hold, supply chains have been disrupted, and agencies like UNHCR, UNICEF and other NGOs are working around the clock to protect refugees from the coronavirus.

We are also proud to have a long-established partnership with aid agency Direct Relief to provide vital health and hygiene supplies in humanitarian settings. Direct Relief has launched a huge response to Covid-19, dispatching vital hygiene and medical supplies to vulnerable communities in response to the outbreak.

UNHCR representatives unloading boxes full of Unilever’s Rexona at a refugee camp

Promoting access to hygiene

We have launched a Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC) in partnership with the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) to help tackle the spread of coronavirus. A number of the projects which form this work are targeting refugees and other vulnerable groups such as internally displaced people.

As part of this, in Bangladesh, we’re working with UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee to fight Covid-19 in the world’s largest refugee camp. Cox’s Bazar hosts almost 1 million Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, and the crowded conditions make controlling the virus very challenging.

A number of partners in the coalition are using a behaviour change programme developed by our Lifebuoy soap brand in collaboration with Oxfam. ‘Mum’s Magic Hands’ is the only handwashing behaviour change programme designed specifically for use in emergency settings, and has been successfully deployed in Syrian settlements in Lebanon, reaching almost 30,000 refugees, in partnership with UNHCR. This is being rolled out more widely as part of our efforts to respond to coronavirus through the HBCC.

Building brighter futures

Unilever is a member of the TENT partnership – a group of businesses committed to supporting refugees with services and livelihood opportunities, and using our voice to advocate for refugees’ right to work.

In Malaysia, we are working with TENT and UNHCR to encourage the government to give refugees the right to work. Our ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s is also committed to helping people who are refugees to further their careers. Ben & Jerry’s launched the Ice Academy in 2017 in partnership with TERN – The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network, to help newcomers overcome the barriers faced when trying to start their own entrepreneurial journey and build a new life in safety.

Through the Ice Academy they can access training, mentoring and part-time employment to help grow their business ideas.

Activism and advocacy

Many of our brands are making efforts to support refugees who are being affected by the pandemic and lockdowns.

Ben & Jerry’s continues its activism across European markets, highlighting how Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting people seeking safety, including those in detention centres, people in camps waiting for relocation, people stuck at the borders of the EU and those for whom access to healthcare is not guaranteed due to their immigration status.

Ben & Jerry’s has been clear on the urgent action needed by world leaders in order to give everyone – no exceptions – the chance to live in safety and in dignity. Read the eight concrete steps the brand calls for here.

“Refugees are already among the world’s most vulnerable communities, and they are at enormous risk during the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Helena Dollimore, Senior Manager, Global Sustainability.

“We believe businesses can bring important expertise, infrastructure, resources and networks to help reduce the impact of emergencies, provide relief and rehabilitate affected communities – as well as raising awareness. Through partnerships, programmes and purpose, we hope we can make difference.”

International Rescue Committee representatives unload a delivery at a refugee camp. CREDIT: International Rescue Committee

Image from the International Rescue Committee

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