When Refugees and the Financial Crisis Collide: Framing the Economic Future Around Refugee Experience

This research began with a pilot project focused on women refugees’ lived experiences in the United States (US) and how they can contribute to an understanding of the social economy and offer potential solutions to the financial crisis. While refugees existed before the current economic crisis, the global financial meltdown has exacerbated issues of civil conflict and environmental, food, fuel, disease, war and many other disasters that impact economic stability for these individuals (Calhoun, 2011; Pearson & Sweetman, 2011; Kotz, 2009). During an economic crisis it is important that people learn how to survive and look for new ways to deal with adversity; few systematic analyses of refugees’ practical knowledge of survival in a new land during a fiscal crisis exist. The study aimed to provide a space for the voices of refugees and practitioners such that scholars, policymakers and the general public can learn from their experiences.

A literature review demonstrated four main topics. First, immigrants and minorities are vulnerable workers, having lower levels of education, being recent entries into the labor force and overrepresented in industries that have seen extensive job loss due to the crisis, (Pollock & Aung, 2010; Papademetriou & Terrazas, 2009; Federal Reserve Board, 2008). Secondly, the disaster has created cuts in the formal sector, often leading people to the informal workforce where there is little social protection (ILO, 2011). Thirdly, since the crisis, public resources have been severely cut (Pearson & Sweetman, 2011; Dowd, 2009) and organizations are unable to provide services at the same level (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2011). Finally, refugees’ are marked as resilient, as evidenced by their willingness to change jobs, move for work and their greater mobility than foreign-born persons (Blanchard & Katz, 1992; Papademetriou & Terrazas, 2009). Opposing authors question whether immigrants and refugees can continually be resilient (Pearson & Sweetman, 2011) and warn that coping mechanisms are complicated and intertwined with hierarchical structures of power, gendered norms, social class and issues that may limit their resilience (Menjivar, 2000, p. 241). Overall, the literature reflects refugees’ connection to vulnerable occupations, informal work, public resource restrictions and resilience during the crisis.

The study used Institutional Ethnography (IE) to investigate the lives of refugee women and the economic catastrophe. IE is “the empirical investigation of linkages among local settings of everyday life, organizations, and translocal processes of administrations and governance” (DeVault & McCoy, 2006). IE draws connections between the social relations of the participants’ lives and their historical and current contexts (Smith, 2005; Jurik, 2005). Additionally, I used intersectional theory to examine the overlapping dimensions of a person’s life; similar to IE, it examines the personal and institutional relations. Through this methodology, theory and interviews in Phoenix, Arizona, US, I examined how women refugees have been affected by the crisis [1].

Based on the interview data, refugees are surviving the crisis in three ways: working within the capitalist system, the use of family and social networks and reliance on service providers. While the first theme demonstrated refugees’ survival was based on ties to the capitalist system, working in vulnerable occupations and/or receiving welfare, the second and third tactic is where principles of the social economy (SE) emerged. SE exists as a third sector outside of the traditional market and government, including entities that provide communities with services not being offered by the standard market (Defourny, 2011).

The traditional economy is not providing substantial wages or benefits (Leyshon, Lee & Williams, 2003) for refugees so they find alternative ways of organizing and meeting their needs. Refugees may pool money to help a community member fix a car because they do not have access to traditional loans or banks. Individuals often trade or vend traditionally expensive services such as childcare and laundry services or sell items from their home to community members (formally & informally) and in their own language. Finally, refugees used service providers and third sector organizations as stop-gaps to help with housing needs, jobs, accessing benefits and paying for rent during the crisis. The ideas and reporting from the interviewees identify areas where principles of the SE are benefiting refugee communities; these alternatives extend from the fail of the traditional economy to supply these people with basic needs.

Based on the pilot study data, phase II of the project will involve interviewing another set of women refugees working in the SE. As Amin (2009) argues, the SE is an alternative way of organizing socio-economic life and therefore becomes key in discussions of economic recovery, solutions to the crisis and refugee involvement in civil society. As a part of the SE, the third sector is “characterized by social and political embeddedness” (Laville, Lemaitre and Nyssens, 2006). This connection between social and political arenas creates a potential space for refugee economic-empowerment within their communities as well as possible solutions to the fiscal crisis. The research will look at how vulnerable populations influence the pathways through which they find financial and social viability. During this economic crisis, knowledge gained from the lives of these women could offer insight on unconventional avenues to managing financial and social adversity and understanding the link to the social economy.


1. I interviewed 13 English-speaking, women who varied in age from 19 to 51 and came from a variety of countries, including Burma (Chin, & Karenni ethnic groups), Sri Lanka, Cuba, Iraq, Bhutan, and China. Year of entry ranged from 2007-2011. To obtain information from another layer of the complex relationship between refugees, the state structure and the global economic crisis, I interviewed four service providers (2 women and 2 men): an apartment complex owner; an ESL teacher; a pastor & a former staffer for a service organization.


Amin, A. (2009). The social economy: Alternative ways of thinking about capitalism and welfare. Zed Books.

Blanchard, O.J. & Katz, L.F. (1992). Regional Evolutions. (In Brookings Papers on Economic Activity).

Capps, R., Fortuny, K. & Fix, M.E. (2007). Trends in the low-wage immigrant labor force, 2000-2005. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Defourny, J. (2011). Social Economy. Retrieved from http://www.emes.net/index.php?id=234 on October 8, 2012.

DeVault, M. & McCoy, L. (2006). Using interviews to investigate ruling relations. In D.E. Smith (Ed.), Institutional ethnography as practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Ltd.

Dowd, D. (2009). Inequality and the Global Economic Crisis. New York: Pluto Press.

Federal Reserve Board, (2008). Summary of commentary on current economic conditions by Federal Reserve District. Washington, DC.

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International Labor Organization. (2011). Statistical update on employment in the informal economy. Washington, DC. http://www.ilo.org/public/english/support/lib/resource/subject/informal.htm

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Leyshon, A., Lee, R. & Williams, C.C. (2003). Alternative economic spaces. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication.

Menjivar, C. (2000). Fragmented ties: Salvadoran immigrant networks in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Office of Refugee Resettlement. (2011). http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/

Papademetriou, D.G., & Terrazas, A. (2009). Immigrants and the current economic crisis: Research evidence, policy challenges, and implications. (Migration Policy Institute). Washington, DC.

Pearson, R. & Sweetman, C. (eds,). (2011). Gender & the economic crisis. Warwickshire, UK: Oxfam with Practical Action Press.

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Valdez, Z. (2011). The new entrepreneurs How race, class and gender shape American enterprise. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Carrie BauerCarrie Bauer is a Ph.D student in Justice Studies at Arizona State University. She received her Bachelors and Masters in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Springfield. In addition to working towards her doctorate in Justice Studies, she is pursuing graduate certificates in socio-economic justice and gender studies. Her research interests emphasize her passion and motivation in pursuing justice for women. They include, socio-economic justice and globalization; economic development and sustainability; gender and work; democracy, human rights, refugees and justice theory. Her current area of scholarship addresses the impact of women refugees’ intersectional identity on their socio-economic empowerment.

Prior to being accepted at ASU she owned and operated a political research and consulting firm in Chicago, IL. During this time, as an adjunct faculty member, she also taught American Government, Campaigns & Elections and Political Corruption courses at Northeastern Illinois University and DePaul University in Chicago. Personal website: https://webapp4.asu.edu/directory/person/1503692

Email contact: cmbauer1@asu.edu


One thought on “When Refugees and the Financial Crisis Collide: Framing the Economic Future Around Refugee Experience

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