The convulsions that Europe is experiencing over migration are increasingly evident in academic debates and the more expedient interventions of policy-makers. Scholars have long ruminated on factors that so often lead to migrants becoming self-employed at rates significantly higher than their counterparts in countries of destination. Early studies in the US pointed to the importance of so-called ‘ethnic resources’: the norms, values, characteristics and practices that supposedly belong to a particular ethnic group. Although superficially appealing in explaining varying rates of self-employment amongst migrant and ethnic groups, the obsession with ethnic characteristics was misplaced. European scholars have been particularly active in identifying other salient factors that explain the phenomenon of migrant entrepreneurship, including:
- The socio-economic position of migrants;
- Economic opportunities;
- The state of the labour market;
- The places where migrants live;
- The sectors in which they establish their businesses.
Put simply, context matters. And it matters even more now as states desperately try, on the one hand, to stem the flow of migrants, and on the other, promote initiatives to support entrepreneurship. Researchers need to be sensitive to the varying contexts in which migrant entrepreneurs operate; and they also need to look more closely at the regulatory environment, including the debilitating and continuing impact of racism on the capacity of migrant businesses to flourish.
How far policy-makers and practitioners have grasped the lessons from migrant entrepreneurship research is a moot point. Converting academic insights into concrete actions is often challenging. But it is nonetheless worrying that the interventions of many European states still have the traces of the problematic ‘ethnic resources’ approach. That is, they focus on individual qualities (or lack of them) of migrants rather than the structural barriers they face. Hence, initiatives tend to comprise business training, language classes, and personal mentoring rather than more fundamental action to tackle racism, the gendered and classed position of migrants in the labour market, and broader structural disadvantage.
Equally concerning is the rarity with which ‘mainstream’ entrepreneurship policy grasps the importance of diversity, particular in respect of the potential contribution of migrant entrepreneurs. Migrant business support measures and initiatives tend to emanate from a bewildering array of policy actors and institutions, rather than the domain of entrepreneurship. Who actually ‘owns’ the policy challenge of promoting migrant entrepreneurship is difficult to establish with any precision. This applies with particular force to austerity-blighted Britain, a country which previously had a tradition of interesting policy experiments to encourage ethnic minority enterprise.
What is the role of academics in a context of heightened political sensitivities? Is it sufficient to remain detached, proffering complex explanations and little else? Or does such an abstentionist stance constitute little more than armchair theorisation and imply a lack of stomach to push forward the insights arising from academic work? Some activism amongst scholars is evident as they engage with non-academic stakeholders to develop initiatives more securely grounded in the evidence base. But it is clear that the scope for more agile, fluid and concerted interventions by academics is large. Migrant entrepreneurship is being invoked as response to an array of diverse challenges, from enhancing competitiveness to promoting integration. The opportunities for meaningful and engaged scholarship are considerable.