Migrant Entrepreneurship: Opportunities for societal renewal

Migrants and refugees are not only an untapped source of talent, innovation and solution building: many are also committed to offering opportunities to others they will employ down the line as we help them grow their enterprises. Banner image: Shutterstock/Minda photos
Migrant Entrepreneurship: Opportunities for societal renewal
This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.




In 2019, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world increased to an unprecedented 70.8 million, including 25.9 million refugees. This was before war struck in Europe, forcing another 5 million people to flee from Ukraine, mostly women and children; before we see the full implications of climate change and IPCC warnings of millions of climate refugees. While refugees and migrants need immediate humanitarian aid—and the deeper systemic issues these situations bring to the surface need to be addressed—their everyday livelihoods and mental health are under duress when they cannot find work. Entrepreneurship offers a powerful opportunity for refugees and other migrants to rebuild their lives and contribute to the economy and society of their new home country, often as well as their country of origin. It offers useful goods and services, creates jobs and helps to diversify the economy.

Refugees are, generally, perceived as weak, as a burden, as needy and passive members of society. For me, it’s the opposite: they are courageous, skilled and passionate change-makers, both with their lives and for the host society.

The Impact Hub network, with 107 locations in 63 countries, has been exploring how to make entrepreneurship more inclusive to groups that have been historically and systematically left behind, namely migrants and refugees. Together with members of the European Business & Innovation Centre Network, the European Venture Philanthropy Association and Caritas organisations, Impact Hub has been developing robust, inclusive and innovative approaches for social change in entrepreneurship ecosystems.

For the past year, experts and entrepreneurs from the underrepresented groups have been gathering in a series of virtual working sessions—forming communities of practice—to debate, exchange, investigate, plan, prototype and evaluate the activities that could kick start an entrepreneurial eco-systemic change in Europe. “Refugees are, generally, perceived as weak, as a burden, as needy and passive members of society. For me, it’s the opposite: they are courageous, skilled and passionate change-makers, both with their lives and for the host society. We just need to ensure [for] them the appropriate opportunities of inclusion,” shared Syed Hasnain in an interview with Impact Hub. Syed is an Afghan social entrepreneur living in Italy and supporting other refugees/migrants in the policy space; he is a participant in a Better Incubation Community of Practice.

Paul Sheehan, CEO of SEAF, an ESG+ manager funding entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build climate resilience, food security, and inclusion, recently wrote about Forcibly Displaced Persons (FDPs): “Employment is the best way for FDPs to support themselves and minimize costs to their host nations, but inability to access the job market due to legal barriers and discrimination is perennially one of the chief concerns for refugee populations. Refugees are undervalued in the marketplace and the workplace, despite frequently possessing valuable skills and experience, due to the perception of them as ‘other’ and to the suspicion of host communities that they will be burdens or potential sources of criminal activity. At the very least, there is always concern that arriving refugees will take existing opportunities from existing residents in a zero-sum job market”.

More on the Forum Network: Attaining the Possible: Educating Ukrainian refugees helps build their new lives—and rebuild their country by Andreas Schleicher, Director, Education and Skills, OECD

More on the Forum Network: Attaining the Possible: Educating Ukrainian refugees helps build their new lives—and rebuild their country by Andreas Schleicher, Director, Education and Skills, OECD

Entrepreneurial support organisations, such as Impact Hub, are well positioned to equip refugees and migrants with the business skills and access to networks and capital they need to start and grow businesses. In addition to building economic returns for the migrant/refugee, we are particularly interested in enterprises that have a positive impact on the environment and/or society and contribute to the SDGs. In order to develop this important service offering effectively, it is critical to collect the good practices and achievements of, as well as challenges faced by, both refugee and migrant entrepreneurs and the organisations that support them. Aiming to address this necessity, and alongside our engagement in the Better Incubation project, Impact Hub recently released a report called Mapping Refugee & Migrant Entrepreneurship in Europe, in partnership with the Human Safety Net.

Our research concluded with concrete recommendations for building a more coherent support pathway for entrepreneurs, and highlighted the need to offer more support to their businesses after they launch to boost their resilience and potential to grow. A validation workshop was conducted with a group of stakeholders to collect input, comments and ideas on the study; with most participants confirming they needed an updated mapping of the sector to support practitioners to make informed decisions while developing support services. Workshop participants agreed with the main findings of the study, which included the main characteristics of newcomer entrepreneurs, recommendations and good practices in the field to support refugees and migrant entrepreneurs.

In our Better Incubation programme, one of the best practices cited by the community of practice on Refugees & Migrants is MiFriendly Cities’ work on inclusive and innovative urban spaces. Here we found that by the end of 2020, MiFriendly Cities had invested EUR 80,000 in migrant social entrepreneurs, 28 projects were pitched for seed funding and 16 social enterprises were registered as businesses. In addition, with support of the programme an initial 45 jobs were created, more than 40 migrants and refugees were trained, and 2,361 beneficiaries were supported. To date, 44% of the involved social enterprises have been able to adapt and continue throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns, with many more planning for an uncertain future.

If we are to tackle the far-reaching, systemic issues we face due to climate change and social unrest that are growing around the world, we need the talents of all people willing to work towards a better future—for themselves and the planet.

In Sheehan’s article, SEAF’s Co-founder and Chief Investment Officer Bert Van der Vaart goes on to say: “In exploring investment opportunities in investing in Syrian refugees in Armenia, we saw that many of the especially highly educated refugees in fact were ‘snatched’ from productive work in Armenia by the opportunities to migrate to Canada or Australia, countries targeting skilled engineers and doctors. Had there been more sources of equity finance available to support more sophisticated employment, it may have been the case that more might have stayed in Armenia”.

Migrants and refugees are not only an untapped source of talent, innovation and solution building: many are also committed to offering opportunities to others they will employ down the line as we help them grow their enterprises. If we are to tackle the far-reaching, systemic issues we face due to climate change and social unrest that are growing around the world, we need the talents of all people willing to work towards a better future—for themselves and the planet.




Find more about why recovery efforts need to address structural obstacles to migrant integration in the OECD International Migration Outlook 2021

Find more about why recovery efforts need to address structural obstacles to migrant integration in the OECD International Migration Outlook 2021

Read the OECD report Rights and Support for Ukrainian Refugees in Receiving Countries for information on entry and stay conditions, available reception support and integration measures

Read the OECD report Rights and Support for Ukrainian Refugees in Receiving Countries for information on entry and stay conditions, available reception support and integration measures