Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugee Women as Entrepreneurs in Australia

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugee Women as Entrepreneurs in Australia

Article excerpt

Starting a small business in Australia is often discussed alongside the 'risk-taking' attributes of entrepreneurs. This characterisation casts entrepreneurship as positive and adventurous, with the promise of rewards. However, some groups in Australia have no choice but to pursue self-employment due to their constrained opportunities in the labour market. Refugee women, in particular, face barriers to being part of the workforce that relate to language, culture, gender and family, and employer attitudes and practices. For many of these women, entrepreneurship has significant risks and is motivated not by opportunity and ambition but by necessity.

Stepping Stones to Small Business is a programme which provides business training, networking opportunities and mentoring for refugee women in Melbourne. An evaluation of the programme in 2015 suggests that participants, while positive about the knowledge they had gained and the networks they had developed, largely had not converted these newly acquired resources into small business income. Many refugee women demonstrated the traits often associated with entrepreneurship - a desire for independence and autonomy, for example - but still faced barriers to small business development, such as a lack of personal savings and the need to delay for family reasons. Our findings reflect important distinctions between notions of entrepreneurial risk and reward, the realities of small business development, and overlapping opportunity constraints associated with gender, ethnicity and forced migration status.

Push and pull factors

Economic necessity and difficulties in securing waged employment can often push people who have been granted refugee protection into self-employment. Refugees have lower rates of workforce participation, higher rates of unemployment and lower average earnings than other migrants in Australia. They are also more vulnerable to long-term unemployment, are less likely to secure 'good' jobs (according to definitions advanced by the International Labour Organization), and tend to be clustered in low-status, low-skilled occupations. As in many other host countries, refugees in Australia face employment barriers relating to language, unrecognised or undervalued qualifications and experience, 'cultural distance' within workplaces, and employer discrimination.

There are also pull factors that attract refugees to entrepreneurship, such as the allure of financial security and independence, or previous small business experience in their home country. Self-employment may offer the possibility of enhanced professional standing and higher earnings than waged employment, given that migrants work predominantly in lower paid, precarious jobs.

Refugees in Australia have demonstrated many of the qualities stereotypically associated with entrepreneurship. A 2011 study of first- and second-generation refugees in Australia found that many of them have a propensity to take risks and take advantage of opportunities when they arise.1 Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics also indicate that refugees derive a higher proportion of income from self-employment than other migrants, with this income increasing sharply after five years of residence.

However, entrepreneurial migrant women have particular constraints on small business development, such as difficulties acquiring start-up capital, a lack of financial skills, limited access to affordable childcare, and fewer market-relevant support systems and networks than men. Expectations of family responsibilities, underpinned by religious restrictions and cultural norms, may add to these limitations. Even if women overcome the attitudinal barriers in their family and community towards women running businesses, they may still be considered responsible for childcare and home management, which can lead to conflict between work and family demands. Nevertheless, the incentive for many migrant women to start small businesses may also spring from a desire for freedom from insecurity and to overcome traditional barriers related to language difficulties, and financial and institutional constraints, such as ethnic and community solidarity. …

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