Syrian Refugee Entrepreneurship in Turkey – Integration and the Use of Immigrant Capital in the Informal Economy

Reyhan Atasü-Topcuoğlu

Social Inclusion, Volume 17, Issue 4 (2019), Pages 200-210


This article examines small-scale entrepreneurship of Syrian refugees in three Turkish cities: Istanbul, Gaziantep, and Hatay. The author uses ‘forms of capital’ as an analytical frame, encompassing: (a) economic capital; (b) social capital; (c) cultural capital (including institutionalized forms such as educational certificates and diplomas, embodied forms such as aesthetics, occupational skills, and language skills, as well as knowledge of Turkish laws and bureaucracy for starting a business); and (d) symbolic capital (prestige acquired in Syria and earned among the local community in Turkey). The analysis is based on in-depth interviews in 2018-19 with Syrian entrepreneurs who established businesses after 2011, as well as with representatives from Chambers of Commerce in each location.

Main findings:

  • Social capital drives location decisions. Interviewees were aware of solidarity among networks, used their connections to choose their destination, and settled near connections.
  • Institutionalized cultural capital may diminish in the host country due to loss of documentation, lack of recognition of qualifications, labor market restrictions, or language barriers. Interviewees also highlighted loss of social status, however they were able to rebuild social capital gradually over time.
  • Economic capital and/or social capital facilitated the initial investment for starting a business. Refugees with economic capital in Syria were able to move some of it to Turkey. Others worked and saved money, and pooled resources and loans in the family for investment.
  • Embodied cultural capital explains the sectoral concentration of Syrian small entrepreneurs, in particular: entrepreneurship experience; occupational skills (craftsmanship); manufacturing know-how; and cultural knowledge such as understanding group-specific aesthetic preferences and tastes (especially in restaurants and with barbers) and language. Leveraging cultural capital depends on the existence of co-ethnic groups and cultural similarities with the host country.
  • Refugee entrepreneurs employed several strategies to respond to consumer demand, for example: (i) starting enterprises in dense immigrant districts and leveraging shared symbolic capital (Arabic language) and cultural capital (knowledge of customer preferences), e.g. to open a grocery store; (ii) leveraging pre-displacement networks of customers, e.g. to start a manufacturing enterprise; (iii) drawing on the reputation earned in Syria, including the use of well known business names; and (iv) using middlemen, wholesalers and traders to connect Syrian producers and customers in various localities.
  • Refugee entrepreneurs gradually rebuilt their social and cultural capital by: (i) first working for other people, in order to make connections and learn local business practices before opening their own businesses; (ii) building relationships with Turkish colleagues; and (iii) attending NGO-run training programs.
  • To sustain their business, refugee entrepreneurs may deliberately remain secluded, accept informality and keep prices low. Operating informally relieves entrepreneurs from tax and social security costs and helps retailers keep prices low. However, price differences between formal and informal markets can create tension between Turkish and refugee entrepreneurs.

In the concluding section, the author posits that informal entrepreneurship does not seem effective at enhancing integration in terms of a refugee’s relationship with the state. While refugee enterprises provide informal jobs and some money for the daily survival of refugee workers, it has a limited effect on economic and social integration. Despite these limitations, small-scale refugee entrepreneurship provides a tool for survival that has the potential for further development. Local integration policies provide an opportunity to formalize existing small enterprises, which may open new channels for integration as well as for increasing production and employment.