Understanding refugee entrepreneurship

Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies

Deema Refai is a Lecturer in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at the Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. Her current research focuses around refugee entrepreneurship. Photo: Dr Deema Refai (left) with Razan Alsous, a Syrian pharmacy graduate who founded the successful Yorkshire Dama Cheese Company.

Dr Deema Refai with Razan Alsous

Since the onset of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, Syrian refugees have been displaced at numbers estimated to be as high as 6.6 million inside Syria and 6.1 million outside Syria.  

In 2017, the OECD raised concerns about the high costs incurred by the migration crisis. Working with Dr John Lever and Dr Radi Haloub from the University of Huddersfield, our project moved beyond this overarching focus on costs. We set out to explore the skills and knowledge that refugees bring to the UK, and to assess how these can be harnessed to enable refugees to contribute to the UK economy in ways that help to further social integration. 

Through our two-year journey with Syrian refugees, Syrian refugee entrepreneurs, local authorities and refugee support agencies, it became evident that Syrian refugees arrive with a wealth of skills, knowledge and expertise, yet, the potential socio-economic contribution they can make to the UK through entrepreneurship is not a simple proposition; it is one subject to many constraints and obstacles.  

Some of those obstacles are imposed by the vulnerabilities of refugees themselves, and by the cultural contradictions evident in the refugee journey. Refugees also face numerous social, legal, financial and policy-related constraints, which hinder their entrepreneurial endeavours and their ability to bring business ideas to fruition.  

Through the stories of the refugees we spoke to, it was evident that many were self-employed in Syria. There is a strong business culture and history of trade, and many Syrian refugees have a strong family and cultural legacy of self-employment. 

There is also a long history of refugee entrepreneurs being successful in the UK, and many successful UK businesses, including Marks & Spencer and the Burton Group, were originally set up by refugees. 

However, in the current context, once refugees start considering entrepreneurship in the UK, they quickly realise that any skills and knowledge gaps are exacerbated by a range of social, legal, financial matters and policy constraints. 

Social challenges 

Refugees arrive with different types and levels of skill, knowledge and expertise. Unfamiliarity with UK society and culture are often exacerbated by a lack of language skills, particularly for those with trade-based skills. 

I am a joiner, but I can’t find any joinery jobs here, I need a qualification but I can’t get that because of language barrier.

Focus group participant

Those who fled Syria early to seek asylum in the UK were often from middleclass backgrounds with the means and resources required to flee Syria. This was also the case with the first group of refugees who arrived through the UK Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement programme (VPRS), of whom many had a university education and a good level of English. In more recent years, however, there has been an increase in more vulnerable working-class refugees, who do not have the same resources, ability and language skills as the earlier groups of refugees. 

Among uneducated refugees, poor language skills are often compounded by poor learning skills and by feelings of frustration. Consequently, many refugees opt for precarious, low-skilled forms of employment, including cleaning jobs, car-washing and labouring.  

We heard numerous stories of willing Syrian refugee entrepreneurs unable to make the first steps into business because of communication issues. Some missed out on opportunities for small start-up grants in some local authority areas simply because they could not access or understand relevant information. 

Well-being and mental health also concerned refugees, and some suggested that isolation and social exclusion forces them into unsuitable and precarious forms of employment, as well as hindering the wider process of integration. 

I know people in the college who have been in the UK for 15 years and still cannot speak English... They said that they were working, but they do not deal with English people and they did not get the chance to mix with them.

Focus group participant

Legal challenges 

Poor language skills can also lead to other workplace challenges around understanding rights and regulations. Understanding health and safety, and building and hygiene regulations, for example, often presented significant challenges. 

A lack of understanding about regulatory requirements also creates cultural anxieties about breaking tax rules and regulations, for example, and becoming indebted to Government agencies. This was stressed by a few agency representatives we spoke to, who suggested that some refugees are very hesitant about starting up a business because they do not understand the system. In some cases, this can encourage informal business arrangements and poor business practice. 

Financial challenges 

For many refugees hoping to become entrepreneurs, there is no financial support or funding available. 

We applied to so many sponsors including charities, councils, Companies House… They all praised the initiative, but said it is a huge project and [they] can’t support it financially.

Refugee entrepreneur and project participant  

This should not be viewed as a problem specific to refugees, as all funding applications require a significant level of credibility and rigour. Nevertheless, our research shows that these challenges were significant and pervasive amongst the refugees. Some suggested that benefits dedicated for business set-up would be a good option, while others suggested enrolling refugees in training courses that build on the skills and knowledge they already have. 

Policy constraints 

It is widely recognised that the immigration policy environment has become more hostile in recent decades. Coordination between local and national policymakers has unravelled significantly, and regional support agencies have been left to pick up the pieces. In Yorkshire and Humber, Migration Yorkshire (the regional migration partnership) is now the only way for local agencies across the region to make contact with national policymakers. In this fragile policy context, it is often difficult to engage refugees in what many of them regard as an unpredictable and dangerous policy process.  

Refugee support services are often disjointed, fragmented, and overstretched, which reduces access to support services and undermines the impact of provision. After being resettled in West Yorkshire in line with VPRS resettlement quotas, many refugees recounted being offered training and employment far from where they have been resettled with their families.  

After a long journey, I managed to start a life with my family here in this town; it’s been tough, and now I am expected to start working at a job somewhere else. I can’t move again!

Focus group participant 

Many refugees often resettle elsewhere to be near fellow refugees, where they can receive and provide mutual support to counter the social exclusion and isolation these policies produce. 

Another issue that surfaced related to the threat of financial benefits trapping refugees in dependency. This is a complex policy issue that brings the cultural complexities of resettling refugees from a country with a strong history of self-employment to the force. We heard many stories of refugees refusing welfare support, for example, or offers of employment, for fear of being in debt with Government agencies. 

To enable refugees to contribute to the UK economy in ways that help to further social integration, greater awareness of the cultural expectations and needs of refugees is needed, both for labour market integration and for those trying to engage in entrepreneurship. 

For further information about the project and to read the final report, which includes policy recommendations, visit the webpage

This project – A Better Future - Understanding Refugee Entrepreneurship (BFURE) – is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant: SRG1819\191522. It is co-led by Dr Radi Haloub and Dr John Lever, University of Huddersfield.

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