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Counting Our Losses: Social Entrepreneurship, Refugees and Urban Transformation in Turkey

Principal Investigator:

Dr Fiona Murphy, Research Fellow, Queen’s University Belfast

Co-Applicants: Dr Pinar Uyan Semerci, Director for the Centre for Migration Research, Istanbul Bilgi University; Dr Evropi Chatzipanagiotidou, Lecturer in Anthropology, Queen’s University Belfast; Dr Ilay Ors Romain, Faculty Member, Istanbul Bilgi University

 Project Description 

Turkey is the largest host of refugees in the world with over 3.4 million refugees now living in the country, and with 90% of Syrian refugees living in urban centres. This has had enormous political, social and economic impact both for refugees and local communities in Turkey. A large number of humanitarian initiatives engage with such issues, but in research contexts a systematic bottom-up analysis of ‘loss’, displacement and the transformation of cities is yet to take place.


This project consolidates an ongoing collaboration between Queen’s University Belfast and Bilgi University Istanbul in order to more systematically study the ‘loss-displacement-integration’ nexus in Istanbul. It offers new ways of assessing the impact of economic loss (as loss of skills, education and employment but also social, cultural and emotional loss), on the everyday lives of refugees, and its recovery, by examining the role of social entrepreneurship and labour politics in refugee ‘integration’.

 As such, this research emphasizes that better pathways to economic integration for refugees is critical in the transition to social equality, access to rights, and citizenship in a given host country.

The project is a multi-disciplinary study that 1) traces spaces in Istanbul, which refugees use in their capacity as social entrepreneurs to advance their skills and develop a sustainable livelihood 2) documents such spaces to produce a mapping tool on the project website  ( called: TRANSCITY: Skills, Education and Employment) that will become an ongoing resource for refugees, NGOs and policy-makers; and, 3) examines how refugees’ social entrepreneurship initiatives can be supported by state and non-state actors as a step towards urban citizenship and labour integration. 

In addition to international and state aid, social entrepreneurship has been recognised by the UNHCR as a crucial avenue for alleviating poverty and enhancing the integration of refugees. In Istanbul, there are a large number of social entrepreneurship projects run by refugees and local NGOs that provide spaces for up-skilling, education and training. These initiatives offer diverse services; from technology projects and training to art galleries that provide visibility for the work of refugee artists, to craft and cookery initiatives aimed at women and which enable the acquisition of further skills and a regular income. In a context where Syrians living in Turkey have limited labour rights, the project examines to what extent such initiatives offer one important, alternative pathway into the labour market, potentially creating new spaces of inclusion and, thus, urban citizenship.  

This project does not, however, construct social entrepreneurship as an all-encompassing term or as a panacea for the so called ‘refugee crisis’. On the contrary, the project investigates how refugees and local NGOs and actors understand and implement social entrepreneurship on the ground, what challenges and new hierarchies evolve through such initiatives, and how labour market participation more generally is enhanced or restricted by participation and visibility in the city, especially for women and young people.  In adopting a bottom-up approach, the project develops key insights directly relevant to migration and integration policy in Turkey and beyond, thus making a critical intervention to one of the most pressing issues for urban life and sustainability in Turkey. 

Fiona Murphy and Evi Chatzipanagiotidou have written for Open Democracy on this project

Project Twitter @transcityistan 
Project Instagram @transcityistan


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