It is often assumed that what is bad for migrants is good for citizens. Tougher immigration requirements – bad for migrants but protecting ‘our’ borders; restrictions on the right to work – bad for migrants, but safeguarding jobs for ‘us’; limiting access to the welfare state – bad for migrants but maximising the resources for citizens.

Solidarities are constructed, but oftentimes this construction is imagined as against the grain of competing interests. This in large part because of assumptions about both the migrant as outsider and the citizen as rights bearer. However, the migrant is not necessarily an outsider – indeed their very presence illustrates the instability of the insider/outsider dichotomy, and citizens’ rights are increasingly eroded. For example, despite claims about the welfare state as the culmination of social citizenship, in practice accessing social assistance is both increasingly difficult and highly stigmatised. Are there ways of connecting migrants and citizens then that do not construct them as competitors for the privileges of membership?

Habitual Residence Tests

Attention to mobility rather than migration can help us tease out some of these connections. For example, concerns about ‘welfare tourism’ have led many states to introduce Habitual Residence Tests (HRTs). These tests erect barriers to accessing social welfare for recent arrivals through requirements related to proving the applicant’s ‘centre of interest’ lies in their state of residence. The UK introduced its HRT in 1994 making it a condition of access to non-contributory benefits. The underlying principle is ‘the taxpayer should not have to subsidise people with very tenuous links to this country’ (Kennedy 2011).  The test itself is opaque and designed to demonstrate applicants are legally resident and intending to remain in the UK for a reasonable period, measuring factors such as length and continuity of residence, prospects of work, and having a ‘settled intention to reside’.  Crucially the HRT is imposed via national social security regulations not via immigration controls, and is also applied to British citizens returning from abroad. Having the legal status of citizenship is not, by itself, considered a strong enough link to merit welfare protections, which can come as a surprise to British nationals who are returning to the UK after a period living abroad (Anderson and Dupont 2019)[1]. Policies designed to limit non-UK nationals’ access to the welfare state have consequences for UK citizens – and, while originally targeted at EEA incomers, the HRT will continue to impact on returning UK citizens despite the fact that the UK has now left the EU.

Social Housing Allocation

Barriers to access the welfare safety net are not only experienced by returning UK nationals who fail the HRT. Accommodation is administered by the local authority, and internal boundaries determine eligibility for social housing. Some local authorities’ social housing allocation policies are particularly concerned with the problem of the ‘internal migrant’ who has crossed boundaries internal to the state. These may be British citizens, but this does not mean that the local authority will accept responsibility for housing them.  As well as length of residence in their jurisdiction, local authorities may also have behavioural requirements for social housing eligibility. These can be negative – not having a criminal conviction, not being ‘anti-social’ but also positive. For example, as well as a five-year residential qualification, Barnet council’s housing allocation policy offers community contribution awards for ‘People who play a part in making their neighbourhood strong, stable and healthy – those who help make it a good place to live, work and play’ (Barnet Council 2019: 35). While these requirements are directed at citizens, there are parallels here with the ‘good character’ requirement made of non-citizens applying for naturalisation.

Mobility controls on citizens

It is important to note that these kinds of mobility requirements and restrictions are not peculiar to the UK. In the Netherlands social assistance claimants can be sanctioned a month’s worth of benefit if they move without a ‘clear and good reason’. In Turkey, some recipients of disability and elderly allowance cannot even move to a different street in the same district, as any application is automatically terminated, meaning in effect that benefit is withdrawn for months. In Hungary it is necessary to prove residence for a year in a local area before being entitled to apply for social housing, while in Portugal claimants can be required to present at the parish council every two weeks to confirm unemployment status. At the same time as residence must be settled, claimants can be required to travel long distances to work. In Austria, to count as legitimately searching for work, applicants must be prepared to make a two-hour one-way commute, and longer if they live in a remote area. In the UK, the travel to work area is 1.5 hours (Anderson and Dupont 2019).

Thinking about mobility controls at different scales, the local and regional as well as the international, exposes how citizens’ mobilities are shaped by states at national and local level through the welfare system. This is a helpful starting point to explore the continuities as well as the differences between migrants and citizens and give substance to solidarities grounded in shared experiences.

Bridget Anderson is a Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at Bristol University and a member of the Solidarities project Academic Advisory Board.

[1] An exception is now made for citizens who have paid UK National Insurance contributions

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