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Migrant Destitution Is Not the Answer to the Welfare Question

Migration and welfare: these two issues provoke media excitement and political debate in Europe today. They come together in ways that invite careful thought, because stricter welfare policies may be fostering destitution among migrant families.

In Germany, news of plans to forcibly remove migrants who “fraudulently” claim welfare benefits showed a government keen to appear vigilant. As Germany leads a shift towards stricter interpretations of EU free-movement rules, Britain marches full steam ahead with its intentions of creating a “hostile environment” for migrants with irregular status by switching off essential services and introducing a new “right to rent.” But our study shows that there are consequences for migrants from this hardened approach to welfare.

The plethora of immigration statuses (e.g., asylum-based, temporary permits, family-based, EU-based) and their associated welfare rights has led to a highly complex framework of entitlements and exclusions. Less attention, however, is given to the emergence of a hefty bureaucracy and to the serious implications that increasingly restrictive welfare systems bring to the destitution of migrant children and their families.

The study, published by the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford and funded by the At Home in Europe project of the Open Society Foundations, examines the fallout of these restrictive welfare policies in more detail.

We focused on two European cities with contrasting migration histories and experiences of the European financial crisis—Berlin and Madrid—to see how laws and policies frame migrant childrens’ prospects. We wanted to understand both the dynamics of entitlements and exclusions to welfare benefits for migrant children and their families, and the ways that these laws and policies are implemented by public servants.

We identified two forms of exclusion to welfare benefits: One, gaps in the legal and policy frameworks that exclude certain migrant families by design. For example, in both cities, migrants who are unlawfully present were excluded from welfare benefits. These exclusions extended to some mobile EU citizens in Berlin and those with less than a year’s residence in Madrid.

Second, problems in implementing policies meant that some migrant families were unable to access welfare benefits to which, by law, they were entitled. Several factors contributed to this gap between policy and practice. For example, so-called “street-level bureaucrats” (public servants enacting statutory powers and duties) can sometimes misinterpret the complex legal framework. They may also exercise discretion, guided by their own “moral agency,” by acting outside their powers and refusing services even when families are eligible.

In Madrid, withholding services has resulted from austerity measures and cuts to public services and resources. Systems to hold welfare authorities to account for their decisions are virtually nonexistent in Madrid, while in Berlin active social courts appear to have little impact on poor initial decision making.

The implications of exclusions from welfare benefits can be severe, with destitution in particular being a condition seen frequently by research participants. Destitution can take the shape of families sleeping in parks, abandoned factories, or, more commonly, “sofa surfing,” with children living in unpredictable and insecure forms of accommodation.

Nonetheless, in both cities we found formalized systems that seek to address part of the fallout of restrictive welfare policies. In Berlin, a legal entitlement to accommodation and subsistence exists for those deemed to be non-deportable yet “tolerated” by the authorities. In Madrid, the regional and local governments fund NGOs to manage a number of accommodation projects for destitute migrant families.

Such mechanisms implicitly recognize the potential implications of welfare restrictions and the need for measures to prevent destitution and associated harms. State efforts to mitigate destitution risks are sticking-plaster solutions, operating at the margins of welfare systems. 

In order to develop more sustainable solutions, national, regional, and local governments should first develop welfare policies that take into account the potential risks of destitution, and then strengthen the legal bases for providing minimum standards of living for migrant children and their families.

The Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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