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A railway station in Milan. Creative commons

Are European welfare systems accessible to foreigners?

Since the “refugee crisis” in 2015 precipitated the rise of the far right in Europe, debates on the impact of migration on welfare states have raged across the continent. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that EU- and non-EU migrants alike still struggle to access welfare benefits in their European countries of residence. This is despite the fact that immigrants are more exposed to vulnerability. In 2019, 45% of non-EU citizens and 26% of citizens of other EU member states were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared to 20% of national citizens, according to Eurostat.

As social scientists of the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies (CEDEM at the University of Liège, we were curious to see how immigrants’ access to benefits might vary between EU member states. Backed by the European Research Council, our project has spawned a database and three books that identify the conditions that immigrants – Europeans and non-Europeans alike – must meet to access benefits in areas such as healthcare, employment, old-age, family, and social assistance.

Throughout the project we were in touch with dozens of Senegalese, Tunisian and Romanian migrants and their relatives in different European cities, as well as with civil servants and NGOs involved in helping them secure benefits. Our research draws three big lessons.

Welfare policies in the EU are “transnationalising”

Looking at the welfare policies in 40 European and non-European countries, we found significant similarities in the way states deal with migrants. As a rule of thumb, the principle of habitual residence – whereby one has to officially live in the member state where s/he seeks welfare support – remains widely adopted. This means that individuals moving abroad are likely to lose access to the benefits in their home countries.

However, our research also found that this principle has undergone two significant changes. First, certain types of benefits continue to be accessible after individuals emigrate. In the area of pensions, for instance, all EU member states allow retirees to continue receiving their contributory pensions abroad if they decide to emigrate and only eight countries (Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland, Spain) limit the number of destination states in which the pension can continue to be received.

Recent EU legislation on social security coordination and a batch of bilateral social security agreements between European and non-European states have accelerated this process. We found that Tunisia, for instance, has signed 13 bilateral social security agreements with European and North African states (Algeria, Austria, Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Libya, Luxembourg, Morocco, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain) that aim to guarantee the equal treatment of their citizens in these destination countries’ welfare systems. For Tunisian immigrants working in Belgium or France, this means that periods of activity in the home country can be taken into consideration for the calculation of benefits paid by their country of residence. Similarly, immigrants can also —in cases of emergency mostly— have medical expenses incurred during short trips in their homeland covered by the social security system of their country of residence.

Second, European countries are developing innovative programmes – so-called diaspora policies – in which institutions such as consulates that are traditionally not in charge of social protection help nationals abroad deal with social risks. For example, Romanian and Spanish consulates tend to have social attachés that inform and assist citizens abroad in claiming social benefits in their country of residence and in their home country.

This is also the case for certain non-EU nations, whose consulates can serve as gateways for their citizens to receive the support of European welfare states. In our research, we observed the administrative process through which widows of Senegalese migrant workers can access a survivors’ pension from the Spanish welfare state. From these developments, we argue that European welfare states are undergoing – in different ways – a process of transnationalisation that is characterised by a series of adjustments of their social protection policies to adapt to both incoming and outgoing migration flows.

Weaponising welfare policies for migration control

A second lesson is that welfare policies are increasingly used to control migration, even in a context of intra-EU mobility where EU citizens are easily able to settle in other member states. For instance, it is not uncommon for European countries to deny nationality or residence permits extension for foreigners who are perceived to represent a “burden” on the welfare system. Our database shows that in the vast majority of member states, the take-up of social assistance by non-EU immigrants can negatively affect the renewal of their residence permits, their applications to citizenship or their right to reunite with their families.

In most European states, claiming benefits can diminish migrants’ chances of being able to settle down in their host country. Daniela Vintila, Jean-Michel Lafleur (2021). MiTSoPro Policy Survey on Migration, Transnationalism and Social Protection

Belgium was one of the countries where this practice has been observed. Over the past decade, the government has withdrawn the residence permits of 15,000 EU migrants on the grounds of representing a “burden” on public finances. In our fieldwork with EU citizens affected by such practices, we noted the gap between the perceptions of EU citizens who believe that their right to free movement is unconditional and the behaviour of welfare authorities who increasingly view immigrants as “undeserving” of support. Overall, these practices indicate the increasing intersection between migration and social policies in different parts of Europe.

No migrant is an island

In our interviews with immigrants across different European cities, we observed a difference between rights “on paper” and rights “in practice”. Although migrants may be eligible for social benefits in their host country, barriers often remain – for example, a lack of understanding of the welfare system, limited knowledge of the language of the country, lack of documentation about prior social contributions, or even discrimination by civil servants. All can make it challenging for migrants to take up their rights.

This is particularly true for transient and more precarious immigrants who are unfamiliar with the specificities of the welfare system of their country of residence. For instance, we show in a forthcoming paper that Romanian migrants in Germany are confronted with a vast industry – so-called “welfare brokers” – enabling them to access their welfare rights. These range from lawyers, consulting firms to trade unions or migrant community organisations.

Overall, we found that welfare states in countries of residence and origin still treat immigrants and emigrants differently than they do their own citizens. Despite the good intentions of many administrations, individuals’ legal status, nationality, financial and educational resources still determining uptake.

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