The potential of refugee entrepreneurs is huge. But they need our help | Philippe Legrain

Refugees are already equipped with the key skills to succeed in business and their contribution can be worth billions of dollars

Kinan Al Halabi arrived in Australia in 2016 as a refugee from the civil war in Syria. He spoke English, had a university degree, had taught computer science in Syria and had experience working for Swedish telecoms company Ericsson. Yet his qualifications weren’t recognised in Australia and obtaining an Australian degree would have taken three years, so the best job he could find was as an entry-level analyst for Telstra. But he resolved to better himself and on Sundays trained to become a driving instructor. Thanks to a loan from Thrive Refugee Enterprise, a non-profit, he was able to buy a car and start his own business. Now he’s so successful that he’s working flat out and is thinking of starting another venture.

Refugees like Kinan are admitted to Australia on the basis of humanitarian need. They have typically endured years of suffering and dislocation. Most arrive speaking little or no English, with scarcely any savings, few contacts and little knowledge of Australian life and business conditions. They don’t have a credit rating or collateral to apply for a bank loan. Whatever skills or qualifications they have are typically not recognised in Australia, and they often face discrimination too. Yet remarkably, refugees are the most entrepreneurial migrants in Australia – and are nearly twice as likely to start a business as Australian taxpayers in general.

The significant contribution – and huge potential – of refugee entrepreneurs is rarely recognised in public debate. Support from federal and state governments is piecemeal. Even settlement and employment services for refugees rarely recognise or encourage entrepreneurship. Fortunately, non-profits such as Thrive do great work, but they lack scale and funding, and are mostly limited to Sydney and Melbourne. So just think how much more refugee entrepreneurs could achieve with suitable investment and support.

We estimate that an ambitious but achievable target of launching 1,000 new refugee businesses each year could yield nearly $100m in annual economic and fiscal gains. Within 10 years, the boost to the economy could be nearly $1bn a year, according to a new report that I co-authored for the Centre for Policy Development and Open Political Economy Network. There would be large social benefits too, not least because economic participation is vital to successful settlement and social cohesion.

Whether they run a shop or a cafe, drive for Uber, establish themselves as an independent doctor, pharmacist or other professional, or – like Westfield founder Frank Lowy – end up building a global empire, refugee entrepreneurs contribute to society in many ways. They provide valuable products and services, create jobs and wealth, boost local economies and international trade, bring in tax revenues and cut welfare spending.

For refugees themselves, starting a business does much more than provide a job and an income. It boosts their autonomy, self-confidence and social status. It generates a sense of pride and achievement. And it helps newcomers learn English, build connections and give back to the society that has welcomed them.

Some refugees start a business out of necessity. Others spot opportunities that locals have missed. Many translate previous business experience to Australia. What they all share is the refugee experience itself: after being forced from home and making it to a new land where they desperately want to rebuild their lives, they are already equipped with the key entrepreneurial strengths of resilience, risk-taking and resolve.

How, then, can Australia make the most of the huge potential of refugee entrepreneurs? Drawing on both Australian and international best practices, our report sets out seven steps to success. Let me highlight just three crucial points.

We need to start by raising awareness of what refugees do and can achieve. Creating high-profile refugee entrepreneur of the year awards is one way to do so. These would spotlight refugee business founders’ contributions, recognise individual achievements and provide role models for other refugees and indeed all Australians.

Next we need to expand, replicate and improve on promising existing initiatives such as Thrive. So far, Thrive has provided training, small loans and mentoring to around 600 entrepreneurs in New South Wales and Victoria. With increased support from businesses and philanthropists, and potentially from government too, it could help many more refugees across the country.

But to achieve substantial change requires a strategic approach that makes entrepreneurship a viable option for all suitable refugees who are resettled across Australia. Every refugee’s entrepreneurial aptitude, enthusiasm and experience should be assessed, and appropriate training and specific support provided to prospective entrepreneurs, providing a clear pathway from pre-arrival to business launch. While this would entail an upfront cost, it’s an investment that would yield big economic and social returns.

Refugees are remarkably resilient and resolute people with a lot to contribute, not least as entrepreneurs. With a hand up and their own hard work, people like Kinan can and will flourish.

  • Philippe Legrain is the lead author of “Seven Steps to SUCCESS: Enabling refugee entrepreneurs to flourish”, a new report co-published by the Centre for Policy Development and Open Political Economy Network

  • Comments on this article will be pre-moderated to ensure discussion remains on the topic


Philippe Legrain

The GuardianTramp

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