The UK Must Embrace Refugees’ Entrepreneurial Potential

Constrained by the time-consuming asylum process and facing discrimination from employers, refugees find it hard to thrive in Britain
Razan Alsous

In February, the government announced it was halfway towards fulfilling David Cameron’s pledge to resettle 20,000 refugees in the UK by 2020. But resettlement is only half the story.

Constrained by the time-consuming asylum process and facing discrimination from employers, refugees find it hard to thrive in Britain. But in our latest report, the Centre for Entrepreneurs suggests that entrepreneurship is empowering refugees, helping them start afresh.

Take Faith Gakanje-Ajala’s story. In Zimbabwe, she started a business in what was a male-dominated society. Using a public enterprise scheme loan, Faith built a successful textiles business supplying luxury hotels and employing 10 people.

But in 2002 Faith started getting threats for trading with European businessmen and had to flee to the UK. She hit a wall - speaking little English and with no paperwork in her Shona language, she was overwhelmed by the asylum process. Faith was rejected, and appealed, five times over eight years before being granted refugee status. She describes that time as living “in limbo”. “You’re told that, as an asylum-seeker, you can’t enter employment or make profit. You’re labeled ‘a person with complex needs’, which doesn’t reflect who I am. ”

Yet nine days after her application was finally approved, she was securing a grant to start an African clothing company in the UK. She now sells 100 pieces per month in Nottingham’s Creative Quarter, with plans to take on investment and open a high street shop.

Razan Alsous fled from Syria to Yorkshire in 2012. While she was lucky to have her application accepted in under a month, Razan couldn’t find employment despite having two degrees and speaking four languages. “When things got bad in Syria, I thought my qualifications would secure me a decent job if I had to leave,” she says. “But when you just wait in the job centre with no offers, it feels like being stabbed in the heart.”

Razan was driven to starting her own business, using a £2,500 Start Up Loan to buy equipment to make Halloumi-style cheese. Yorkshire Dama Cheese, is quickly becoming famous for its tasty product, captivating story and is turning over around £100,000 annually. HRH Princess Anne recently opened her new premises.

Faith and Razan’s stories are not unusual. British history is littered with examples of entrepreneurial success that are now household names in our everyday lives. What we’ve found is that refugees all share the virtues of courage, resilience and determination - key traits required by any entrepreneur. Some are naturally entrepreneurial and have previous experience. For others, the experience of escaping from their home country, persevering through the asylum process, then facing discrimination in the labour market intensifies their entrepreneurial capabilities and pushes them towards self-employment.

Refugee entrepreneurs also play a role in boosting inclusion and integration. Faith gives children in social care work experience and pocket money. She also mentors young women studying in local fashion schools, showing them sewing techniques and business basics, while they use design software to sketch her designs.

For all these reasons, it is imperative we no longer waste refugees’ potential. In our report, ‘Starting afresh: How entrepreneurship is transforming the lives of resettled refugees’, we call on government to work with business and the third sector to create a new strategy, where entrepreneurship will be accessible to all interested newcomers.

Meanwhile, businesses big and small can do more, by providing placements, workspace, mentoring and other valuable guidance for refugee entrepreneurs. And with a little time, there’s no reason why entrepreneurial success stories like Faith’s and Razan’s can’t be the norm.


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