Refugee. What does the word mean to you?
For many, it conjures up the following: victim; isolation; displacement; stateless; a semantic field of weakness. Delve one level further, and it’s a little more sinister – burden; hindrance; obstruction; deadweight. A pervasive message of hostility that resonates throughout Europe and constructs an image of difference and difficulty.
Why do we presume that those who are without a state, are without an education? That those who wanted to escape war, also wanted to escape responsibility? We seem to hold an unfounded belief that refugees are a powerless and unskilled mass that offer nothing to our economy other than financial pressure, yet the reality is rather different. It’s time to change the rhetoric around refugee narratives, and challenge the negative discourse that follows.
How do we do this? For us at The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) there’s a simple solution: entrepreneurship. Not only does it financially benefit both the individual and the economy, but it is by its very nature empowering.
Take Edin Basic, a civil engineering graduate and refugee from Bosnia in 1992: arriving in London with no money, family or place to live, he was initially seen as an economic burden, another individual depending on the state. Having had his expertise and experience ignored, he was forced to start again at the bottom, washing dishes at a restaurant for minimum wage, attempting to secure his financial independence. Rather than accept a system which placed him as an unskilled victim, for whom any work was enough, Edin persevered and eventually succeeded in establishing his own chain of pizza restaurant, his work culminating in Firezza being bought out by Pizza Express for £3 million. Edin’s story demonstrates that many refugees have the skills to make significant contributions to the national economy and culture, but are often shackled by the perceptions they face upon arrival.
Our assumption that refugees want to depend on us, want to be ‘looked after’ by us is inconsistent with the value we place on the very independence that we see them to be avoiding. We like to earn our own money, surely it follows that refugees do too? Altering our perspective on this matter is key to progress. We need to recognize that refugees stand to lose more from unemployment, both in the stigma it perpetuates and the economic burden it places on their shoulders. Many of them quite simple cannot afford to fail, and as a result they are more eager to get into the job market, and more keen for financial independence. This is why wherever we look for empirical evidence we find an overwhelming demonstration of their economic entrepreneurialism, their ability to contribute economically and socially to communities. Nowhere is this more evident than in Turkey where 1600 new businesses have been set up by Syrian refugees in the country in the last year alone. Meanwhile in Australia it was refugees, out of all migrant groups, who reported the highest proportion of their incomes as coming from “their own unincorporated businesses”- generating jobs not taking them.
Like it or not, the influx of refugees will continue into the foreseeable future, and the xenophobia with which we treat them must end. TERN sees entrepreneurship as the perfect catalyst for this process. Not only does it result in increased economic well-being for refugees, but in a decreased reliance on state aid, challenging the destructive and demeaning narratives that we impress upon them, and creating a structural shift in the psychology of both refugees and receiving communities.
So when you consider the term ‘refugee’, think not of the powerless but the powerful. Let’s alter the semantics of control, let’s welcome refugees as the assets that they are, and let’s encourage refugee entrepreneurship.
Refugee entrepreneurs discussing the Lean Start-Up Model at TERN’s February Boot Camp
An edited version of this post has previously been published at the Migrant’s Rights Network.