Entrepreneurial Minds, Resilient Spirits: How Refugee entrepreneurs are facing COVID-19

18 June 2020

“In its economic and social impact, this virus picks out the most vulnerable and the least protected, and it hits them the hardest”. Guy Ryder, Director General of the ILO.

The COVID-19 crisis has ruthlessly exposed existing inequalities and labour market faults. Millions of people have been pushed into unemployment. Small businesses, key to economies around the world, have been hit particularly hard. Yet some business owners are more vulnerable than others. Refugee entrepreneurs, who already face restrictive labour laws, inability to open bank accounts, and language barriers in host countries, must also now contend with significant health and economic consequences of the pandemic.

Of today’s over 25 million refugees worldwide, many are of working age, yet are significantly less likely to secure employment. Those employed are disproportionally concentrated in precarious forms of work in the informal sector. During normal times, it implies no access to social protection and government support. During a pandemic, it means huge loss of livelihoods due to lockdowns across the globe while being cut off from emergency government funding, crucial to keep small businesses afloat.

Lastly, while many businesses are coping by moving their products and services online, refugee entrepreneurs risk being left even further behind due regulatory barriers restricting their access to online platforms and to online payment schemes, as well as lack of necessary IT equipment and digital skills. On the health side: many refugees live in overcrowded accommodations, where social distancing is difficult and stretched healthcare services are the norm. In these conditions, the risk of a devastating virus outbreak is very real.

At Youth Business International (YBI), we are supporting underserved young entrepreneurs, especially refugees and migrants to survive this current crisis. Our global network of organisations in over 50 countries is adapting and scaling ongoing work to provide targeted crisis support. For example, through SOS Mentoring we are mobilising our global network of 15,000 volunteer business mentors to provide personalised guidance to thousands of struggling young entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, our Rapid Response and Recovery Programme with Google.org is supporting over 200,000 underserved businesses–including those run by refugees and other migrants–across 32 countries with a package of support including crisis helplines, business clinics and training.  We have also recently commissioned a scoping study to identify effective approaches for assisting refugee and migrant entrepreneurs.

Worldwide our members have acted fast to provide immediate support. They report inspiring stories of resilient young entrepreneurs finding opportunities in the crisis and preparing to bounce back despite the current challenges.

For example, YBI’s member Corporación Minutos de Dios (CMD) has been providing support to Venezuelan refugees since 2018 in some of the country’s largest cities and border towns. CMD offers workshops and training courses to develop life and business skills, as well as small seed funding to start a business from scratch.

Due to the pandemic, refugees in Colombia are finding themselves in an even more vulnerable position. Most have no access to healthcare, and many are unable to cover basic costs after losing their jobs. CMD reports that microentrepreneurs they support are being forced to sell the few business assets they own just to meet their basic needs. In response to the lockdown, CMD is piloting a virtual training programme to continue providing practical and emotional support to those who are struggling. CMD is also working to influence national policy to simplify access to employment and state benefits for refugees. They are also working closely with social workers to ensure refugees have access to the services that they are legally entitled to, such as education and childcare.

Despite these tough circumstances, refugee entrepreneurs are finding new ways to cater to their communities. For example, small restaurant owners are offering home food delivery and/or selling products such as traditional Venezuelan pastries online.

In Turkey, Habitat, another YBI member organisation, has been working with Syrian refugees since 2016 to improve their livelihoods. To date, Habitat has reached over 10,000 refugees through its entrepreneurship skills training and supported many of them in successfully registering a business. Through targeted workshops and events, they also provide support for women aimed at improving social cohesion between refugees and host communities.

Habitat has adapted its offer to refugee entrepreneurs. This includes moving their training offer online and adapting the curriculum on topics such as labour law. Recognising the emotional toll of the current crisis, Habitat is providing support for stress management and online sessions with a psychologist. They are also exploring ways to support entrepreneurs to restart their businesses once the immediate crisis is over, including signposting them to government-sponsored opportunities.

Habitat notes that many more women entrepreneurs are accessing their services as they can now participate virtually in these training while looking after their children at home – one of the few positive consequences of lockdown. In addition, a translation service business is among the founders of the Coronathon Türkiye initiative and represented their country at the EUvsVirus Hackathon, hosted by the European Commission.

As a global network, YBI continues to come together to explore ideas, share solutions and create new partnerships, so that we can better support young refugee entrepreneurs now and in the future as we move into the long recovery effort ahead.

By Anita Tiessen (CEO of Youth Business International)

This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact decentjobsforyouth@ilo.org.



Anita Tiessen


Youth Business International

Year of publication

18 June 2020