Researching best practice in supporting refugee and migrant entrepreneurs

By Udeni Salmon and Ann Singleton.

Since January 2021 the University of Bristol has been collaborating with ACH in a research project to bring about social and economic change for refugees and migrants in the UK’s South West and West Midlands. ACH is a social enterprise that works to empower these groups to lead self-sufficient and ambitious lives. Here, we show how the university and this dynamic social enterprise have been working together to understand and support the experience of refugees and non-EU migrants trying to set up businesses in this country.

Entrepreneurship among refugees and recently arrived migrants

Entrepreneurship has long been viewed by policymakers in the UK as a means by which refugees and migrants can achieve economic independence in their new country of residence. In doing so, they create jobs, contribute to urban regeneration and introduce new cultural trends to society. While successful refugee entrepreneurs are held up as aspirational models, the reality is that newly arrived refugees generally lack the capital, social networks and knowledge of the regulatory and tax regimes required to start a new business. Furthermore, refugees experience trauma from their journey, anxiety from being kept apart from their families and uncertainty about establishing a life in the UK.

The Migrant Business Support (MBS) project is led by ACH and works with West of England Combined Authority and two of us from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol – Ann Singleton (Strategic Policy Lead for MMB) and Udeni Salmon (Research Associate). The project consists of seven business consultants across Birmingham and Bristol, which include two graduates of the recent MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies. MBS investigates the experience of refugees and non-EU migrants who are attempting to navigate this early stage of setting up their own business, and the extent to which innovative forms of business support can assist them.

The known problems with business support include the fragmented and passive nature of business support agencies, which are locally provided but privately constituted. A unique feature of this initiative is that the West of England Combined Authority, through the West of England Growth Hub, is working proactively to address these challenges – as a partner in the MBS project and with other key outreach projects across the region. Many business support agencies have failed to engage with business owners who are not white, male or in tech-centric businesses. They are also reluctant to get involved in the risky pre-start stage of a business, when business plans may not be completed, the business concept may be unviable and the potential entrepreneur could still decide to remain in paid employment. Finally, start-up capital is hard to obtain for newly arrived potential entrepreneurs who have no credit history, inherited wealth or existing assets in the UK.

Shalini Sivakrishnan (left) and Eloise Clemmings (right), graduates of the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies, at a project promoting the MBS project

The MBS project: a new approach to entrepreneurship support

Projects are needed that take a more innovative approach to business support for refugee and migrant entrepreneurs. In his recent MMB blogpost, David Jepson describes how ACH and the MBS project take a distinctive attitude to supporting migrant entrepreneurship. MBS developed out of ACH’s experience in Bristol and the West Midlands working with partners to either improve or establish host society services to meet the needs of refugees. MBS is funded by the European Commission and will provide up to 500 third-country nationals living in the UK with intensive, bespoke business support to start, stabilise or grow their businesses between 1st January  2021 and 31st December 2022. ACH’s business consultants and volunteer mentors will deliver individual, bespoke interactions to help their refugee and migrant clients to establish their own business. The University of Bristol team aims to understand how ACH’s project is distinctive in supporting its client base and how the ACH approach can provide insights to inform best practice and improved policy development across the UK.

What makes the MBS offer different?

Having conducted more than 30 interviews with MBS clients, staff and stakeholders, we have found that MBS has distinct advantages to standard business support programmes. First, MBS consultants provide advice and support for their clients’ wider needs, including addressing problems that are impacting clients’ mental and physical health. Advice and support are provided not only for their business plans, but also for housing, health, language lessons and family reunion. ACH’s expansive approach provides clients with the peace of mind to focus on setting up their business.

Second, ACH advisors see employment as a valuable alternative to, or steppingstone towards, entrepreneurship. Employment in a chosen industry gives clients valuable experience, which helps get their business off to a more stable and informed start. Finally, MBS consultants are recruited specifically for their personal experience of being from a migrant family, being a migrant themselves or setting up their own business. Such shared characteristics enable them to build trust quickly and establish credibility with clients who find it harder to relate to the typical ‘white’, English male business advisor.

MMB graduate members involved in the AHC project

Shalini Sivakrishnan and Eloise Clemmings are two MBS advisors who graduated from the University of Bristol’s MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies in 2021. Their approach has been to start from the individual need and develop programmes accordingly. Unlike standard business support organisations, Shalini and Eloise have been pro-active in going out into the local area, meeting people and encouraging them to take advantage of their support. They have also developed programmes that go beyond the narrow remit of traditional business advice.

‘[On the MSc] I learned how organisations that claim to provide services for refugees and migrants may end up disempowering the service users,’ said Shalini. ‘That was a monumental lecture for me and has shaped my work at ACH.’ Recognising that Afghan mothers were depressed being stuck with their children all day in small hotel rooms, she started an Afghan Women’s sewing group. While the group has seeded the idea of starting up a sewing business, it has also been a safe space for the women to talk, share problems and host additional support sessions, such as a visit from a mental health counsellor.

Eloise has also found that the MSc greatly informed her work on the MBS project: ‘It gave me a wider understanding of the numerous challenges faced by migrants and refugees. My dissertation focused on the “production of illegality” – how governments across the globe, create the conditions and categories that label individuals as ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. Now, in my current role, I refer back to this to create new projects that are not only shaped by refugees and migrants themselves, but which are actually accessible to them.’

Next step for the project

The next step for our project is to provide a report for ACH, stakeholders and the funders. We hope this report will contribute to the scarce literature on refugee and migrant entrepreneurship in the UK and will inform policymakers on the importance of taking an informed, collaborative and holistic approach for supporting refugee and migrant entrepreneurs.

Udeni Salmon is a Research Associate Policy in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and Ann Singleton is Reader in Migration Policy in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and MMB Policy Strategic Lead. 

This project has been part funded by the European Union Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund: ‘Making management of migration flows more efficient across the European Union.’ The above text reflects the authors’ views only and not those of the European Commission or the UK Responsible Authority (UKRA). In addition, neither the European Commission nor the UKRA is liable for any use that may be made of the information contained above.

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