American University of Beirut

Under the radar? How Syrian refugee entrepreneurs adapt and operate in Lebanon’s informal economy

​​​Research R​​eport

Ramzi Fathallah, Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, American University of Beirut

Refugee Research and Policy Program, F​ebruary 2020


With many Syrians forced to flee war and violence since 2011, Lebanon has hosted a large number of Syrian refugees who also have sought employment and earning an income to survive. Establishing businesses has been a gateway for many Syrian refugees who could leverage certain skills, business acumen, or specific circumstances. However, Lebanon provides an institutional environment characterized by a high level of ambiguity and uncertainty due to its current local economic challenges as well as the politicized nature of the Syrian refugee crisis. This has created both an enabling and constraining environment for Syrian refugee entrepreneurs who are operating their businesses in informal settings. Adopting an exploratory case study approach, this report examines the entrepreneurial experiences of 37 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In particular, I shed light on the ways Syrian refugee entrepreneurs adapt and operate their ventures in informal institutional arrangements. The study highlights the different forms of informality that entrepreneurs operate within and the different adaptive mechanisms that they employ. I also underline the social normative institutions that provided a compassionate bedrock to Syrian refugees since 2011 but have been shifting recently towards questioning the legitimacy of these business actors in some areas of Lebanon. The report also suggests some practical and policy recommendations to engage multiple actors in supporting Syrian entrepreneurs who could leverage better conditions to improve their situations not only temporarily in Lebanon, but also in Syria when they return.​

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