× Dismiss

Never Miss an Update.

Refugees Deeply is designed to help you understand the complex web of geopolitical, human rights, environmental, legal and other factors combining to make the refugee issue one of the most challenging of our lifetimes. Our editors and expert contributors are working around the clock to bring you greater clarity and comprehensive coverage.

Sign up to our newsletter to receive our weekly updates, special reports, and featured insights as we widen the lens on this critical – and quintessentially human – issue.

The Cost of Fair Refugee Policies

Why Migration Will Not Destroy the Welfare State

As part of the series ‘The Cost of Fair Refugee Policies,’ Behzad Yaghmaian argues that economists’ warnings that migration will undermine European welfare states are based on the same mistaken assumptions common to the anti-immigrant movements roiling the continent.

Written by Behzad Yaghmaian Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Election campaign posters with marine le pen
French election campaign poster with Marine Le Pen, Mulhouse, April 20, 2017. WINFRIED ROTHERMEL/picture alliance/DPA

In a recent commentary Branko Milanovic, a leading expert on global inequality, argued that migration puts a strain on the welfare state in western Europe.

His latest book, Global Inequality, is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the economics behind the emergence of Donald Trump and Brexit, and the growth of populist movements in Europe.

However, his articulation of migration and the welfare state suffers from the same misdiagnoses and wrong assumptions that are all too common in anti-immigrant movements.

Migration vs. the welfare state?

Milanovic argues that, all other things remaining the same, people move to places with higher expected income (including welfare payments).

In the era of globalization, the least skilled or the least ambitious migrants choose countries with more developed welfare states, places where they expect to live at the bottom of income distribution. This movement of people results in a decline in public support for the welfare state, he concludes.

His analysis echoes the rallying cry of anti-immigrant right-wing political movements in Europe. “More and more are coming from the Third World, taking advantage of our benefits … I will be the president of those French who want to continue living in France as the French do,” Marine Le Pen said about immigrants at an election rally in Marseille.

She lost the recent presidential election, but almost 11 million French men and women voted for her message. A similar sentiment exists across Europe.

Yet Milanovic’s assumption about the welfare-driven lower-skilled migrants defies empirical facts. His analysis excludes refugees, and those escaping a complex web of insecurities and risks in their places of birth. For most migrants, the welfare state and its depth is neither a driver of migration, nor the determinant of the choice of place.

Migration is a quest for security, including economic security. The choice of place is subject to complex decision-making processes that involve myriad socioeconomic, political, personal and collective concerns.

It is constrained by distance and the relative ease or difficulty of travel, historical connections between countries of origin and destination, existing networks (also called social capital), language, perceptions about labor market conditions, chance and a host of other emotional and social factors.

The million or so migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015 were desperate people suffering from various degrees of insecurity in their home country and nearby countries officially deemed “safe” but in reality far from so. Most were seeking the security of a new home, a place to live and work in safety. They were not engaged in welfare shopping.

For example, the choice of Germany as a destination by many refugees and other migrants in 2015 was driven not by its elaborate welfare state, but simply by Berlin’s promise not to enforce the Dublin procedure and deport new arrivals to the first country they reached in Europe.

They risked their lives to reach Germany because of the possibility of legal residence in a country that offered safety and security, including the right to work, protection from abuse and a better future for their children. The welfare state is, at best, one among many factors making this possible.

Across the Atlantic, the lack of a real welfare state in the United States has not stopped the movement of people. The migration of lower-skilled Mexicans and Central Americans to the U.S. reveals how migrants take a hazardous journey to reach a country with the least generous system of public assistance. For some it is deadly. They die to reach a non-welfare state.

The killing of ambition

While most migrants do not engage in welfare shopping, Milanovic is correct to diagnose political problems looming in welfare states with high levels of migration. The welfare state can become a trap, forcing some migrants into a bare existence in the underclass.

In France, for example, a large number of Arabic-speaking Muslims and African migrants, including refugees and economic migrants, are systematically ghettoized in overcrowded and excluded suburbs with very high rates of unemployment. Trapped in these ghettoes, most have no choice but to rely on social services and live on the margins of what is deemed “real” French society.

Certain poor French suburbs have become centers of high youth unemployment, disproportionate school dropout rates and all the ills of a life on the margin. Employers prefer not to hire people with an address in these places. Landlords demand a full-time and regular job contract. The welfare state has become a system of exclusion and, thereby, social control. Mutual resentment and distrust prevail between migrants and the local population.

“Once there, you cannot escape. You are there to stay,” one Sudanese refugee told me about the suburb of Lyon where she has lived for the past seven years.

She was a math teacher with a college degree in Sudan in 2002, the year she left her home for Europe in search of a better and safer life. She found a job in a school in France, but not in teaching – she helped in the kitchen, and watched the napping children in the afternoon.

Five years later she left her job and joined the welfare roll. “I am happy for my children. They will have a better life here. But I am sad for me. My development stopped when I came to France,” she told me.

Refugee protection and welfare states

While migration is not incompatible with the welfare state, the ghettoization of migrants and refugees, and their reliance on public assistance, are economically and politically unsustainable. Failing to address the problem will further strengthen the far right and erode possibilities for refugee protection and guaranteeing migrants’ rights.

In a previous article, I argued against a division of labor in refugee protection, in which rich western states provide financial aid in return for other countries hosting refugees. A more equitable global distribution of the responsibility for refugees will require a change in the current thinking of the political elites and, even more importantly, public opinion about refugees and migrants.

To better protect refugees, western countries must address their electorates’ three interrelated levels of anxiety about migration: economic anxiety, cultural anxiety and political (security) anxiety. Among other things, this requires a reassessment of welfare systems as well as other policies that have resulted in growing inequality in recent years.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of News Deeply.

Become a Contributor.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more