In 2013, I was told about a North African woman who lived in a British city and was experiencing severe domestic violence. As a result of the regulations on migrants’ access to public services, she faced a stark choice between staying in the violent relationship, leaving the country, or jeopardising her own legal right to remain in the UK. Unlike migrants entering on the ‘family route’ as partners’ spouses, she fell into a ‘gap’ in the rules because her partner was a European Economic Area (EEA) national, meaning she could not apply for immigration status under the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession. The concession would have supported her accommodation at a women’s refuge and given her a chance of an independent residence, had she been in a partnership with a British citizen or ‘settled person’. She could not leave the country as her partner had stolen her papers. At the same time, she had no access to a short-term welfare safety net – other than some NGO assistance – to escape the devastating situation she found herself in.

While much attention in migration studies focuses on the regulation of entry through bordering practices, much less scholarly attention has been given to the ways in which post-entry rules and regulations influence migrants’ experiences. However, access to state services and welfare support has become a subject of renewed interest within western liberal states in the current climate of ‘austerity’. For years, at least in a comparative historical and geographical sense, migrants’ rights have expanded, due to human rights and equalities concerns (Soysal, 1994). However rhetoric and policies curtailing legal migrants’ access to state support are growing, apparently emerging from a concern to regulate the costs of public welfare provisions. A narrative of welfare chauvinism develops to protect the welfare state ‘from those who have paid nothing into it’.

In practice, few migrants can rapidly access social housing and benefits in the UK; only refugees legally granted status and some EEA nationals may be entitled, with a much longer list of migrants excluded from eligibility. Yet still this narrative is propagated at the highest level. The current UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently called for a purge on ‘benefit tourism’, claiming that ‘ending the “something for nothing” culture is something that needs to apply in the immigration system as well as in the welfare system’.

Within migration studies and social policy, it is encouraging that recent research has insisted on the importance of attention not only to entry regimes, but of documenting and understanding the ‘incorporation regimes’ of European welfare states that give differential access to welfare and public services depending on migrants’ entry category (Sainsbury, 2012). The current line of inquiry speaks to the broader theme of how borders are increasingly inside national territories, through the differential treatment of legal, documented migrants for a significant (and extending) period of time after entry.

Attention to this within the UK shows that – arguably more so than in many other European countries (Oliver, 2013) – there is a growing complexity to the regulations faced by migrants once they enter state territory. As the case of the North African woman demonstrates, policies tread a fine line, attempting to balance conflicting ends, from a need to ‘protect’ state resources to concerns around safeguarding public health or preventing domestic violence. The outcome is an astoundingly complex web of regulations, rules, exclusions and addenda around the eligibility of migrants to a range of public services and benefits (Jayaweera and Oliver, 2013). ‘Complexity’ is a word that repeatedly crops up in interviews with local officials and voluntary sector workers. The opaque rules and legalistic formulations of eligibility are simply not understandable for most service providers. As a result, it can be easier for GP receptionists, admissions tutors in colleges and Job Centre staff to refuse migrants access to services rather than risk making the wrong decision. Access to services can be a ‘postcode lottery’ (Oliver and Jayaweera, 2013).

In this sense, although attention to migrants’ rights within incorporation regimes is an important focus of scholarly attention, rights in law are just one part of the story. The growing complexity of regulations creates a barrier in itself to the ability to exercise rights. Such restrictions, within contexts that seek to limit entry only to economically self-sufficient migrants, have been implemented without understanding their impact on individuals and on wider social cohesion and migrant integration.

Thus, in addition to the well-known ‘vectors of subordination’ of race, class, gender and ethnicity and their intersections with which most social scientists are well-versed, there is an urgent need to consider the ways in which ‘immigration status’ itself becomes a state-legitimated division with consequences for the opportunities and outcomes individuals face. This may occur as a result of the legal rules created to regulate access to services, or the indirect effects of the accompanying complexity itself.


Jayaweera, H. and Oliver, C. (2013) Mapping the Conditions of Stay and Rationale for Entitlements and Restrictions in the UK, IMPACIM Working Paper, Oxford: COMPAS.

Oliver, C. (2013) The Impacts of Restrictions and Entitlements on the Integration of Family Migrants: A Comparative Report, IMPACIM Project Report, Oxford: COMPAS.

Oliver, C. and Jayaweera, H. (2013) The Impacts of Restrictions and Entitlements on the Integration of Family Migrants: National Report. The United Kingdom, IMPACIM Project Report, Oxford: COMPAS.

Sainsbury, D. (2012) Welfare States and Immigrant Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Soysal, Y. (1994) Limits of Citizenship. Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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