Migration and the social protection system in Belgium have been historically closely linked. Established in 1945, the Belgian Welfare State resulted from a long-standing social and political struggle from the mid-nineteenth century aiming at achieving the balance between capital and labour over the Fordist period. The social protection system is based on two pillars: a contributive social insurance (social security1) funded by workers and employers’ social contributions2 and a non-contributive social assistance financed by general taxation devoted to people who cannot get access to work-based social insurance.

Documented migrants and refugees can benefit from both systems under certain conditions of residence, nationality, legal status, means, age, isolation, etc. Through jobs access, social security guarantees protection to documented migrants and refugees and their family, except for the unemployment benefit which requires residence and work permits granted on nationality. Asylum seekers are only entitled to material assistance (housing, food, and social support) during the examination process of their case, and they have access to the labour market four months after their application. When they gain their refugee status or subsidiary protection, they can benefit from social security or social assistance support. As for undocumented migrants, they are neither entitled to jobs nor to any social assistance, except for emergency medical aid.3

The non-contributive social assistance system provides three kinds of assistance rights since 1976: the social integration income4 (minimum guaranteed income—MGI), the equivalent social assistance and the medical aid. These rights are managed at the local level by Public Centers for Social Action (PCSA) for vulnerable people. It is granted on nationality and residence status5 (Belgian or legal foreigner, recognized refugee, person with subsidiary protection status; stateless person, EU citizen or family member with right of residence) but also on age, resources, availability for work, eligibility for social security rights, and the conclusion and the respect of an individualized social integration project. Three types of allowances can be granted: the social integration income6 (minimum guaranteed income—MGI), the equivalent social assistance and the medical aid. The social integration income is subject to conditions defined either by law (26 May 2002) or subject to arbitrary PCSA treatment. It aims at guaranteeing the social integration of people with insufficient income.

According to the Public Service for Social Security (SPF Sécurité sociale, 2021), the migrants’ and refugees’ access to the labour market remained in 2021 a major problem for migrants. Between 2006 and 2019, the increase of non-EU citizens among the beneficiaries of minimum guaranteed income (+4.9%) reflected their difficulty to enter the labour market: in 2019, one out of four non-EU citizens benefitted from MGI (Table 3.1).

Table 3.1 Minimum guaranteed income by nationality 2006–2019

The equivalent social assistance (ESA) is intended for people (as for applying asylum seekers) who cannot access the social integration income because of their nationality, age, residence status, or resources. In principle, it is the same as the social integration income and can be granted as an aid in kind, financial aid, one-off housing aid, social guidance, and medical aid. The number of ESA beneficiaries had fallen between 2012 and 2019, with negative peaks in 2013 (−19.5%), 2014 (−15.1%), and 2017 (−28%).7 About 90% of ESA recipients are foreigners not registered in the population register (SPF Intégration sociale, 2020: 27–28).

The medical aid is financial assistance granted to poor people that covers medical, pharmaceutical, hospital, and ambulatory medical care costs. Asylum seekers, temporary medical migrants and undocumented migrants are entitled only to urgent medical aid since 1996 but this right was withdrawn in 2013 for migrants with a limited stay (B permit and professional card). In May 2017 the Constitutional Court invalidated this provision since it violates the Constitution and international treaties. In response, the legislator reduced access to it, particularly through a complex administrative procedure which hinders healthcare access for undocumented migrants (Guide la personne étrangère, 2016: 5–6).8 NGOs have criticized this device mainly for three reasons: the lack of knowledge of the aid services, its administrative complexity, and its inconsistent implementation according to the local PCSA (Guide la personne étrangère, 2007: 7). The urgent medical aid represents 0.2% of the whole budget of social security and 90% of undocumented migrants never use it (SPF Intégration sociale, 2020). Besides, the Federal Public Service for Social integration revealed that out of more than one million foreigners living in Belgium in 2017, only 4.2% of foreigners received social assistance: 2.2% received the social integration income and 2% benefit from the equivalent social assistance (SPF Intégration sociale, 2017: 10). Despite this evidence, the Parliament’s Health Committee adopted in 2018 the draft reform of the urgent medical aid to fight better against the alleged abuses (Warsztacki, 2018).

This chapter proposes to examine from a historical perspective how the welfare system was first advertised to attract migrant workers to Belgium in times of labour shortage and how their social rights have been extended in a context of economic growth and fundamental rights expansion. Then, it addresses the social and political construction of the migrant fraudster stereotype while evidence has proved they are rather subject to precariousness, discrimination, and lack of knowledge of their rights. The following section analyses the political rhetoric on the alleged migrants’ abuse of the welfare system from the late 70s which entailed harsh restrictions of social and migration rights as a part of the neoliberal regime in the name of welfare system protection for natives. Finally, the chapter presents NGOs which fight back against the repeated infringement of migrants’ and refugees’ rights and the tension between neoliberal policies and the obligation to comply with migrants’ and refugees’ fundamental rights, which makes it in practice more difficult for migrants to access social rights or makes them unenforceable on purpose.

Labour Migration and the Welfare State Settling

During the so-called “Trente Glorieuses”, the mass recruitment of labour migration from 1946 to 1974 had overlapped with the development of the welfare state and the economic growth. To attract more Mediterranean migrants and their families, the Ministry of Labour published in 1964 a brochure called “Vivre et travailler en Belgique” (Living and Working in Belgium) in which the high standards of salary and working conditions, education, family life, housing, and social security benefits were strongly advertised. The booklet describes notably the functioning of the social contribution system for workers and the benefits it provided for contributors, for example in case of illness, workplace accident or unemployment. The Ministry insisted “Mediterranean workers are welcome among us in Belgium” (Ministère de l’Emploi, 1964: 3) and promised to guarantee working conditions and access to social security through bilateral labour agreements’ provisions9 in the name of the equal treatment principle. These agreements aimed to treat migrants equally in terms of social incentives, working conditions, family, and pension benefits.10 Thanks to the mass recruitment, young healthy migrant workers enabled the government not only to manage the shortage of sectoral labour force (i.e. coal mines and construction) but also to balance the social security budget to which migrants have contributed to as social security contributors and taxpayers.

Shortly after that period of intensive recruitment and during unemployment periods, migrants were negatively associated with social security. For instance, in the 1950s, Italian workers were often accused either of stealing Belgians’ employment or being lazy and profiteers of sickness benefits (Loriaux, 2015). That stereotype was spread off through a French popular song “à la moutouelle, que la vie est belle” (“In sickness leave, how life is lovely”) where the singer, imitating an Italian accent, enjoys being in sick leave and pretends to be ill during the doctor’s control to not return to work. In the 1970s, another popular cliché alleged Moroccan people got rich thanks to family allowances and unemployment benefits. Bastenier pointed out the discourse of political representatives who, during the electoral campaign, spread the rumour of enrichment and its attractive effect on Moroccans through “the Arab telephone that works to bring together in Brussels people who want to live without working” (1992: 125).

Over the “Golden Sixties”, the social security system was extended to many categories of people and reached its apogee in terms of social coverage (beneficiaries and benefits’ spectrum) in the early Seventies just before the suspension of the eight bilateral labour and social security agreements11 in 1974. Yet, from the economic and employment crisis of the mid-1970s, politicians in most industrial countries considered migrants as a weight on public finances, namely on the social security budget but also on education and the health system, without considering their contribution as taxpayers: “As a whole, it is very difficult to know the real impact of immigrants on the welfare system. What is certain is that the economic analysis does not confirm the prejudice that immigrants are a burden on society” (Stalker, 1995: 64–65).

As soon as the social security system was established, the Federation of Belgian Industries criticized, in the name of competitiveness, the workers’ rights to unemployment and sickness insurances, two sectors likely to “encourage the intrusion of many parasites” (Loriaux, 2015: 181). Discourses stigmatizing immigrant workers and their families as “freeriders” of social security focused on sickness, disability, unemployment benefits, and family allowance were broadcast by employers and/or politicians particularly during periods of economic crisis since the 1930s. For instance, during the employment crisis in the late 1960s, minister Louis Major (Socialist Party) proposed to ban access to employment and unemployment benefits to children of migrants (who represented less than 9% of the unemployed), and he questioned migrants’ rights recognized in bilateral labour agreements. The minister stated, “it is unacceptable that, by virtue of bilateral agreements with their country [of origin], some B or C permit holders settle into idleness for a few months, or even a few weeks, and take advantage of our social benefits” (Loriaux, 2015: 203). And he proposed to expel unemployed foreigners holding short-term work permits after their expiration.

In the aftermath of the 1974 crisis, narratives on migrant profiteers of social benefits were emphasized, and some political representatives proposed to expel non-EU unemployed migrants. Some political representatives issued overt racist discourse such as the “open letter” by the mayor of a Brussels municipality published in September 1979. The man blamed immigrants for the economic crisis and asserted, speaking on behalf of the Belgians, they “find it hard to understand, in this period of crisis and unemployment, why you [migrants] are still with us when other countries facing the same problems have not hesitated to take repatriation measures” (Loriaux, 2015: 231). Besides, in 1983, the government experienced a programme for the voluntary repatriation of asylum seekers and pauper migrants residing in Belgium, and in 1984 non-EU migrants unemployed for more than one year were granted a return premium. That policy did not lead to the expected massive return of migrants (between 2500 and 7000 persons according to the Christian trade union) (Loriaux, 2015: 232) because of both the amount of the allowance granted which barely covered the travel costs and relocation expenses, and the poor prospects for professional reconversion in the country of origin (Ouali, 1997).12

From that time, most election campaigns became a broadcast platform of racist discourse from almost all sides of the political spectrum representatives who pinpointed the burden of migrants on social security13 and public finance, despite the rich international literature which has proved not only the positive contribution to public finance of migrants but also the limited role of social benefits on the decision to migrate (Bastenier & Dassetto, 1980; Chojnicki, 2012; Docquier et al., 2014; Giulietti & Wahba, 2013; OECD, 2013; Stichnoth & Van der Straeten, 2013). On the other hand, researchers revealed the dependence of migrants on certain branches of social security in the past and currently,14 which was due to their higher vulnerability to the labour market (OECD, 2013) in terms of working conditions or/and unemployment: “There might be several reasons behind immigrants using welfare more intensively than natives. For example, immigrants may have unobservable characteristics that make them more prone to be on welfare. Furthermore, welfare dependency could be triggered by labor market discrimination in accessing jobs” (Giulietti & Wahba, 2013: 12–13).

Accordingly, access to social security or social assistance is often vital, particularly for non-EU migrants and refugees, to cope with their labour market exclusion and their social and economic weak position in the Belgian society (Bevers & Gilbert, 2016; Ouali & Ceniccola, 2013; SPF ETCS & CIEC, 2019). Indeed, in 2016, non-EU migrants and refugees held the lowest rates of employment: North African, Sub-Saharan African, and Middle Eastern people between 20 and 64 years of age were employed at 46.5, 45.8, and 33.6%, respectively, while the figure for Belgians was 73.7%. They also had the highest rates of unemployment for 18–64 years of age (19.4, 18.8, and 15.9%) while for Belgians it was 4.8% on average.15 Besides, they held the highest rate of poverty risk16: in 2019, while it was 11.8% for Belgians and 19.3% for EU citizens, the rate reached 42.9% for non-EU citizens (SPF Intégration sociale, 2020).

Enforcement of Equal Treatment for Migrants in Social Protection

Though equal treatment was acknowledged in the bilateral agreements17 from the 1950s, its enforcement alleviating numerous migrant’s discriminations existing in Belgian laws has taken decades (Ouali, 1997; Panciera & Ducoli, 1976). From the aftermath of the Second World War to the end of the 1970s, progress had occurred in the coverage of social rights for migrants, refugees, and stateless people because of different Belgian laws (1980 Act granting legal status to foreigners and 1981 Act fighting against racism, 2007 Act against discrimination18), the constitutionalizing of fundamental rights, international conventions, bilateral labour agreements, and EEC directives and social security conventions.19 On the other hand, the support of Belgian trade unions (and European ones) for the equal treatment of migrant workers and their families have also played an important role (Boräng et al., 2020; Jefferys & Ouali, 2007; Knotz et al., 2020; Ouali & Jefferys, 2015).

Equal treatment was also the objective of the Belgian integration policy for immigrants implemented since 1989 by the Royal Commission for Immigrant Policy (RCIP) (1989–1993). The RCIP spotted discrimination in education, labour market, housing, health, and social protection rules. The new policy comes on the heels of fiscal austerity policies that have already restricted a range of social rights20 for all citizens and strongly limited the rules for migration to Belgium. Nevertheless, the RCIP put forward the removal of nationality to get full access to unemployment and vocational training programs as well as social assistance for legal migrants: “otherwise a category of second-class citizens would be created who, although they had a right of residence, had no or reduced rights to social protection which, if it is extended to them, would enable them to have a life in compliance with human dignity” (RCIP, 1989, Vol 1: 58). At that time, the proposal was also supported by the Flemish coalition government where the nationalist party NVA (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie—New Flemish Alliance) was absent.21 Hence, the government abolished discrimination affecting young Moroccans who were refused unemployment allowance and vocational training when they left secondary school like all young people22 on the pretext that there was no social security agreement between Belgium and Morocco despite non-discrimination clauses in labour agreements and the fact that all other young foreigners benefited from it.

Regarding the Constitution, in 1994 it recognized for everyone “the right to live a life in accordance with human dignity” (Article 23). This principle was implemented into article 1 of the Social Assistance Act of 1976 and worded as follows: “Any person is entitled to social assistance. The purpose of social assistance is to enable everyone to live a life in accordance with human dignity”. Consequently, the State is supposed to guarantee, among other things, the right to work (§1) the access to social security, health protection, social, medical, and legal aid (§2) and family benefits (§6). According to some lawyers (Feron & Laurent, 2009), “Any person” means no restriction in terms of age, sex, nationality, or any other criteria, and “live a life in accordance with human dignity” refers to human beings regardless of their condition. However, for undocumented migrants, human dignity has been strictly limited to health protection since social assistance is restricted to urgent medical care. Although human dignity is a universal value, the Belgian legislator and government interpret it in a very restrictive way because it is linked to migration policy whose “final and real objective is deportation from the territory and its effective execution when an order to leave the territory is notified. (…) In limiting the right to social assistance to undocumented migrants, the legislator hopes that, deprived of their fundamental livelihoods, the person concerned will comply with the order to leave the territory or at least discourage entry into Belgian territory” (Feron & Laurent, 2009: 17, 31–32).

On the side of international treaties,23 national, and EU social security bilateral agreements, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are protected against all discrimination. These legal standards enabled many individuals and NGOs to force the Belgian state to comply with the principle of equal treatment and to improve migrants’ access to social protection.

Migrants: A Threat to the Social Protection System?

The perception of migrants as social protection fraudsters and profiteers is one of the persistent prejudices that have been attached to migrants for decades. The few surveys on social protection and migration confirm the relatively high pervasiveness of this stereotype and deconstruct the alleged image of abusers.

The analysis of the European social survey 2008 showed that migrants and refugees in Belgium are often seen as a threat particularly for both the employment and social security system. In the three regions, more than one in two people consider them to be a burden for social security (61% in Wallonia, 58% in Flanders, 57% in Brussels) (Marfouk, 2014). More recently, researchers revealed that almost one in two Belgians (48%) thought that immigrants benefit more from social and health care services than they contribute to the state budget: 52% of the Walloons, 47% of the Flemish and 40% of Brussels population thought so (Lafleur & Marfouk, 2017).24

In contrast, several surveys from the late 1970s have demonstrated that immigrants and their families were not abusers and have been the subject of persistent discrimination. For instance, Bastenier and Dassetto deconstructed the myth of alleged abusers in health expenditures, disability benefits, and family allowance; they noted: “The myth of the father of a large immigrant family pocketing up to 200,000 Belgian francs (€5000) every month, as some people and even politicians like to spread, must absolutely be shattered” (Bastenier & Dassetto, 1979: 13). The researchers revealed lower expenditures for migrants (=94) than Belgians (=100) for health and hospital care. Furthermore, Bastenier emphasized the fact that “in many branches they are, on the contrary, the source of significant financial reserves due to their work in Belgium” and if they benefited more from unemployment and in the occupational disease branch it was due to their specific work sectors and the impact of deindustrialization on them (Bastenier, 1980: 162–163).

More recent evidence has corroborated the unequal access of foreigners to branches of the social protection system. For example, the chart below presents the inactivity status of the 25–64 age group in 2016 among the inactive population by nationality. We observe an overrepresentation of Belgians among pension benefits (30.2%), while the share of people of foreign origin is very low (3.8, 1.5 and 0.3%). On the other hand, sub-Saharan Africans and Middle Easterners are over-represented among the beneficiaries of the guaranteed minimum income, respectively 8 times (25.6%) and 10 times (34.3%) more than Belgians (3.2%) (Fig. 3.1).

Fig. 3.1
figure 1

(Source Datawarehouse marché du travail et protection sociale, BCSS. SPF ETCS. Monitoring socioéconomique 2019.

Share of social security and social assistance beneficiaries of 25–64 years old by nationality of origin among inactive population in 2016 (%)

Carpentier (2016) analysed 13,500 trajectories of social integration income beneficiaries in 2004 or 2005 over four years. She showed that migrants are more dependent on social assistance schemes because of their difficulties to access the labour market. She revealed that the median spell lengths of migrants originating notably from Africa and Asia are more than three times longer compared to natives. The lower exit rates among beneficiaries of European and Turkish or Moroccan nationality compared to natives are due to their short-term residence in the host country. The beneficiaries born in Belgium from European and Turkish or Moroccan families follow social assistance trajectories similar to those of natives. Carpentier concluded that social assistance helps migrants to face difficulties to enter the labour market. “Yet, the long median spells in social assistance (and low exit hazards among some migrant groups) suggest that the current active labour market programme and education and training facilities do not allow many migrant beneficiaries to get quickly out of social assistance. The resulting long social assistance spells could enhance or anchor situations of social exclusion” (Carpentier, 2016: 66).

Regarding the positive impact of immigrants on the social protection system, Lafleur and Marfouk (2017) compared social benefits they have been granted and social contributions and direct and indirect taxes they have contributed to. The calculation points out that: “the net contribution of immigrants to Belgian public finances is positive, as is the case for the majority of OECD countries (20 out of 27 states). More precisely, according to OECD calculations (2013), the net contribution of immigrants to Belgian public finances is estimated at 0.75% of gross domestic product (GDP), equivalent to an amount of almost three billion euros” (Lafleur & Marfouk, 2017: 98). The National Bank of Belgium has estimated that from 2020, migrants would create 0.1% of additional growth, and Amnesty International pointed out that while asylum seekers cost on average 40 euro per day, a large part of these expenses benefits the whole society thanks to employment generated (Amnesty International Belgium, 2017).

Political Rhetoric on Migrants’ Abusers: Fear and Mystification

Despite scientific evidence of the non-abuse of welfare by migrants, their persistent discrimination and the non-use of their rights, neoliberal and nationalist Belgian politicians persisted in justifying migration policy and welfare state restrictions in the name of these alleged abuses.

While the Belgian economic growth during the “Trente Glorieuses” and the rise of the fundamental rights gradually granted more social rights to migrants, the subsequent economic and financial global crises (1974, 1997 and 2008) provided opportunities to undertake profound reforms of migration and social policies (health, education, social protection, or naturalization law25) under the neoliberal regime since the mid-’80s.26 That regime led, on the one hand, to budget cuts on social security and social assistance which hit the more vulnerable people, among them migrants and refugees, and on the other hand, to strong restrictions of migration rights (i.e. family reunification, asylum) in a context of increasing popularity of the far-right and Flemish nationalist party, NVA—a republican, neoliberal, separatist, and anti-immigration party. The representatives of this party started to fuel and spread off stigmatizing rhetoric on migrants, refugees and their families considering Muslims and Moroccans, in particular, as a burden for the Welfare State.27 Thus, they challenged the right to social protection and fundamental rights of migrants acquired over time. These narratives have had a strong influence on the vision and discourse of mainstream political parties (Billiet & de Witte, 2008; Gsir et al., 2016; Ouali, 2021).

During the “refugee crisis”, the press reported political statements restoring the stereotype of “foreign profiteers” and distinguishing “political refugees” and “economic refugees” who were allegedly driven by the lure of the generous social security system and were suspected to abuse it. Vandemeulebrouck analysed the contribution of politicians to the dissemination of racist rumours and stereotypes about migrants in the 1970s and 1980s: “It is striking to note the extent to which politicians have played the role of blasting xenophobia in public opinion over the last twenty years (…) The blasting statements about foreigners are definitely found in all the traditional parties at all levels of power” (1997: 218–219). For example, a well-known representative from the liberal party (Roger Nols) asserted that a refugee candidate could receive more than one million Belgian francs (25,000 euros) in family allowances, a rumour that was passed by a member of his party in the press under the title “Additional abuse. 1,200,000 Belgian francs [±30,000 euros] for a political refugee”.28

Political rhetoric in recent years is based on two well-known schemes: fear of migrants and mystification of abuses of the welfare system. The use of the fear of migrants is a fundamental springboard that draws on various social constructions such as the fear of invasion,29 cultural and religious identities, diseases importation (HIV, tuberculosis), violence against women, delinquency, or the cost for public finances and the welfare system. This government by fear (Agier, 2020: 11) and the resulting “moral panic”30 yield political and media discourses about “securing” in order to prove the determination of governments to combat insecurity without really dealing with the insecurity generated by the disintegration of living conditions following the dismantling of the Welfare State (Bauman, 2020: 47). These fears justify to native populations the discrimination or even the abuse of rights carried out, despite the political discourse displaying the intention to respect migrants’ fundamental rights (Spire, 2008).

The image of migrants as abusers of social protection came back to the fore in the last few years in the discourse of neoliberal ministers who defend financial cuts in social protection and migration rights. In December 2013, widely supported by her partners in the coalition government31 and nationalist party NVA, Federal minister Maggy De Block (Flemish liberal party) in charge of asylum and migration policy, stated she was hunting for people who illegally benefit from social assistance through the crossing of public service databases: “We were able to see who was here to take advantage of our social system. There are also French, Dutch, and Spanish citizens, but also Romanians and Bulgarians. This is very important because we have to avoid people taking advantage of our social system” (RTL TV).32 The main novelty is the comeback of EU migrants and the stigmatization of Italians depicted as profiteers of social assistance. In fact, if they benefit from social assistance, they lose their residence permit, and for certain categories, they are deported (Lafleur & Mescoli, 2018). These practices put in question not only the freedom of movement and equal treatment of European citizens, but also the aim of social policies to fight against exclusion and precariousness.

In July 2017, Minister for Social Integration Willy Deborsus (Liberal Francophone), in cooperation with Minister for Social Affairs and Public Health Maggy De Block (Flemish Liberal), and with Théo Francken (NVA) the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration policy, argued for the reform of urgent medical assistance (UMA) to fight “medical tourism”. These three liberal ministers advocated for a harsh neoliberal policy to reform and restrict the welfare system, notably by strengthening the control of medical expenses reimbursed by the Federal state.33 The minister of social integration stated in the press: “Access to urgent medical aid is a fundamental right to human dignity. However, there is an increase in urgent medical aid, but also significant differences in cost between the municipalities, and even cases of medical tourism. (…) However, we must ensure that we combat these abuses by putting in place more thorough control. Solidarity in emergencies, yes, health care ‘à la carte’, no” (Guide Social, 2017).

Six months later, the new Federal Minister for Social Integration, Denis Ducarme (Liberal Francophone) declared that the UMA reform was undertaken to fight the abuses of both doctors and undocumented migrants and save money: “Free comfort care for migrants is over! We must stop the abuses. And there are abuses, some of which we don’t see. We will therefore set up a system based on the control of a medical advisor who will make sure to contact the care provider to check whether they are still in the field of urgent medical aid”.34

The minister asserted that according to the medical officer of the Health and Disability Insurance Fund, doctors “would falsely fill in UMA certificates” and migrants would benefit from “ultrasounds to find out the sex of the child” not covered by the insurance, “circumcisions for non-medical reasons” which are covered for legal migrants and “cosmetic surgeries”. These alleged practices have been clearly denied by Médecins du Monde and NGOs like Medimmigrant, Ligue des droits de l’Homme, and Coordination et Initiatives pour Réfugiés et Étrangers who reminded the minister that the rules for accessing UMA are very strict.35 Moreover, Médecins du Monde questioned the alleged abuses reported by the medical officer who analysed 200 files for UMA in 2016: twelve cases (6%) did not correspond to “urgent aid”, and they were interpreted in a very restrictive way.36 Regarding the savings, Médecins du Monde challenged them: “At the present time, the UMA budget represents 0.2% of the costs of the Health and Disability Insurance for a public that represents about 1% of the population in Belgium. Moreover, the average individual cost for UMA beneficiaries is 24.5% lower than in the ‘normally’ insured Belgian population”.37

On the ground, NGOs observed that the UMA reform has had a direct and dramatic impact on health care access for migrants who are already vulnerable. Médecins du Monde reports that the social investigation of the Public Center for Social Action is increasingly complex and bureaucratic: the normal 30-day period for obtaining medical coverage is getting longer and hundreds of migrants are being refused medical care, including pregnant women whose pregnancies do not meet the criteria for a medical emergency. Despite strong protests from NGOs and doctors, researchers and experts, the bill proposed by the Minister for Social Integration was adopted by the Parliament on the 15th of March 2018.

In January 2018, the president of the nationalist party NVA, Bart de Wever, stated “We must choose to either open the borders or preserve our social system” and he criticized the alleged left-wing political parties’ project to open the borders to migrants. In his view, that opening “will inevitably jeopardize the current functioning of the social security system. There are 37 million Sudanese people who probably yearn for a better life. Do we have a moral duty to take in 37 million Sudanese? And what about the other Africans? If we decide to make our social security available to everyone, then it will collapse”.38 In response, socialist MP Ahmed Laaouej pointed out the government’s (in which the NVA participates) cuts to social security contributions, which brought about a loss of several billion euros for the social security system, the abolition of salary indexation, and the reform of pensions.

Then, in April 2019, a month before the general election, the former Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Théo Francken (NVA) published a book on migration (Francken & Vermeersch, 2019) where he criticizes the financial cost of migration on social security and proposes to reduce migration and limit the access to social security for newcomers—including beneficiaries of family reunification.39 To bypass the European directives and the Geneva Convention which guarantee the respect of fundamental rights, Francken proposes to reduce the access to social protection for all citizens: “We therefore have only one option left: to put borders on access to social security for all”, including Belgians. In so doing, the minister finally clearly displays his neoliberal policy which sharply cuts the social protection system. This posture has been analysed in Magni-Berton’s study (2014) about the link between the attitude of support of the welfare state and the anti-immigration rhetoric of the native French: he points out that behind this rhetoric and the lack of support for the redistributive model of the welfare state lies a neoliberal discourse that challenges the very principle of solidarity and redistribution that underpins the welfare state.

Restrictions and Repeated Infringements of Migrants’ Rights

Since the 1990s, several governments have undertaken increasing restrictions both on social rights affecting the most vulnerable populations, particularly in terms of unemployment and social assistance, and on migration and asylum rights. The social assistance policy has been the most affected with harsh restrictions for students, asylum seekers and their families, and undocumented migrants. The parliamentary history explained the reasons for these restrictions: “The limitation of social assistance was intended to provoke the departure of people who are obviously no longer entitled to it since they have received an order to leave the territory definitively”.40 Similarly, the following reforms (1997, 2001, 2007, 2011) about asylum application, family reunification and social assistance regulations were clearly intended to discourage migration to Belgium and to reduce dramatically the number of migrants considering that the social assistance system was too attractive for applicants (Feron & Laurent, 2009; Gsir et al., 2016). The government asserted also that restrictions were undertaken to protect41 asylum seekers from slumlords and human traffickers (Lejeune, 2005).

The misleading argument of abuse to justify restrictions on migrants’ rights is perfectly illustrated in the example of the stay application for “serious medical grounds”.42 This right turned out to be almost unenforceable in practice since the Office des Étrangers (OE) put numerous obstacles to accessing care and residence (Klausser, 2015; Maglioni, 2014) to such an extent that a group of social workers, lawyers and doctors denounced in a White Paper43 the abusive practices of the administration in the processing of these applications. The authors examined the cases of patients with serious pathologies that cannot be treated in their country of origin (HIV, mental health problems, cancers, severe disabilities, lupus) and noted a mostly negative44 interpretation of “serious medical problems” by the OE that prevents access to regularization of residence required to benefit from care.

Two eminent jurists stressed the fact that “The legislator has constantly reformed this procedure in recent years in an increasingly restrictive direction on the pretext of combating what was presented by the administration as numerous abuses of procedure causing a bottleneck within its services. Non-compliance with Article 9ter is more like a ‘permit to die’ on Belgian territory” (Dejemeppe & Martens, 2015: 14). However, despite repeated condemnations of the Belgian state by the European Courts (ECHR and ECJ) (Vinois, 2015), notably for non-compliance with Article 9ter (June 2015) the former Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Théo Francken (NVA) persisted to not comply with the legislation and to justify the administration’s refusals on the grounds of the abuses. The administrative bottleneck following the reduction in administrative staff enabled the authorities to point at the alleged influx of applications to prove the abuses and justify restrictions on migrants’ rights or even their serious violations. For Dejemeppe and Martens (2015) the cause of the administrative backlog is insufficient staff45 which has been steadily decreasing over time, and not alleged abuses: “The negative decisions currently taken by the Belgian administration directly threaten the dignity and life of these patients and put into question Belgium’s international commitments to respect human rights and the right to health. Despite its international commitments, Belgium is ordering seriously ill people to leave the country without regard to whether they will continue to have access to life-sustaining treatment and without regard to whether the human rights of these patients are respected” (Collectif, 2015: 78).

The historical perspective of the state’s relationship to its migrants in Belgium put forth in terms of social rights has revealed the complex situation where we have seen, on the one hand, progressive access of migrants to a series of rights and, in times of crisis, on the other hand, severe repeated restrictions on social protection and migration rights justified by alleged migrants’ abuses of the social protection system. These restrictions have been taken from the 1980s, as a part of neoliberal policies which drastically reduced the social state’s role in redistributing wealth and supporting the most vulnerable groups to which migrants belong.

The tension existing between the state’s austerity policies and the obligation to respect migrants and refugees’ fundamental rights is reflected in the ongoing cutback of their rights and in a strategy aimed at making them unenforceable through a multiplicity of regulations and stratagems such as the growing complexity of procedures, the increasing bureaucracy and controls, more severity of screening criteria, staff and material resources cuts of reception services and enforcement of “the policy of numbers” (New Public Management) which reduces the time needed to analyse the applications in depth.

Alexis Spire (2008) describes in detail this deliberate political strategy adopted in France in immigration policy named “la politique des guichets”. It consists in passing repressive laws apparently respectful of fundamental rights and in bearing the burden of discrimination on the administrations and their agents, in making these rights impracticable (Spire, 2008). Some of these agents feel entrusted with the protection of national and moral order and thus engage in a hunt for foreigners’ abusers of social protection to safeguard their social model. Hence, the fight against scammers ordered by politicians (false migrants and asylum seekers, false marriages, false papers, false parents, etc.) justifies both the reform of the welfare state and the non-respect of migrants’ rights: “the rhetoric of fraud makes valid the non-application of a law deemed too generous and to justify the fact that the agents who implement it add a whole series of obstacles to it” (Spire, 2008: 53).

The situation in Belgium is, in many respects, comparable except the rise of the nationalist party NVA at the federal government since 2014 and the growing electoral weight of the Flemish far-right46 that increase the risks for migrants and refugees to be discriminated since they directly challenge their economic and social rights, and humanitarian law and its fervent protectors.47 For these parties, humanitarian law is a real obstacle to the protection of native-born social rights. However, their neoliberal vision of the State led them to similarly contest social rights of French-speaking citizens (Brussels and Wallonia) who are also accused of abusing the welfare system. Hence, the restrictions of migrants’ and refugees’ social rights became a springboard for right-wing and extreme right neoliberals to challenge national solidarity on which welfare system48 draws upon as well as economic and social democracy established over the Fordist wage labour relationship.


  1. 1.

    Social security system includes seven branches: accident at work and occupational disease, invalidity, unemployment, sickness, and maternity, pension (old-age and survivors), annual holidays, and family benefits.

  2. 2.

    The National Office for Social Security centralizes and manages the seven branches of insurance for employees and civil servants, and the National Institute for the Social Security of the Self-employed collects and redistributes social contributions for self-employed and entrepreneurs.

  3. 3.

    For more details about migrants’ rights to social protection see Melin (2020).

  4. 4.

    The law defines the categories of beneficiaries and the indexed amounts granted monthly according to family and financial situations. As of 1 June 2016, cohabitants receive 578.27 euros/month (per cohabitant), single persons 867.40 euros/month and persons living in a family with at least one dependent minor child 1156.53 euros/month (SPF Intégration sociale, 2020).

  5. 5.

    If migrants are dependent on social assistance, the granting of legal residence or a regularization process is detrimental for those arrived throughout family reunification or studies.

  6. 6.

    The law defines the categories of beneficiaries and the amounts granted monthly according to family and financial situations. As of 1 June 2016, cohabitants receive 578.27 euros/month (per cohabitant), single persons 867.40 euros/month and persons living in a family with at least one dependent minor child 1156.53 euros/month (SPF Social Intégration, 2020).

  7. 7.

    As a result of the new asylum and immigration policies which consisted in speeding up the procedures, restricting family reunification conditions, introducing “filter” for regularization on medical ground, promoting the return, and fighting against abuses. The decrease partly due to the transfer of 4.589 people in subsidiary protection from social assistance to social integration in December 2016.

  8. 8.

    These impediments are reflected in the recent figures on urgent medical aid: after an increase of recipients in 2015 (+14.5%), there was a clear slowdown in 2016 (+9.1%), 2017 (+4.6%) and in 2018 (+3.2%) (SPF Intégration sociale, 2020).

  9. 9.

    With Italy, Greece, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, Former-Yugoslavia, and Tunisia.

  10. 10.

    At that time, it should be noted that the right to social assistance was not granted to migrants and their family: it has been allocated under certain conditions from 1976 and then during the nineties as a fundamental right in order to fight social exclusion. However, as any vulnerable people, migrants might grant assistance based on the state’s charity.

  11. 11.

    There are some substantial differences between the country, i.e. the Moroccan social security agreement is more advantageous than the Turkish one as for disabled allowance or guarantee minimum for old people.

  12. 12.

    The premium was equal to three hundred and twelve times the daily amount of the unemployment benefit received on the last allowance increased by ±1250 euros for the spouse and ±375 € for each legitimate child under the age of 18 (Royal Decree of 1985).

  13. 13.

    See the analysis of the last campaign for general election: “Immigration puts the welfare state at risk. The influx of refugees is undermining our social security (…) This is one of Bart De Wever’s pet subjects. The president of the Flemish nationalists is always talking about it in interviews. The idea is picked up: you must choose between open borders and a welfare state. In other words, immigration jeopardizes finances and the foundations of social security. Does this sound like common sense? Not sure” (Mathieu, 2019). In fact, in 2018, social protection budget was in balance: incomes corresponded to 29.3% of GDP, i.e. 134.6 billion euros, and expenditures to 28.8% of GDP, i.e. 132.3 billion euros: 40.4% to pensions, 27% to sickness, 9% to disability, 7.5% to family/children, 6.5% to unemployment, and 6.3% to survivor’s pension (Bailly, 2020).

  14. 14.

    In Belgium for example migrants are more dependent on accident at work and occupational diseases, invalidity, unemployment branches while the Belgian natives depend more on sickness and maternity, unemployment, and pension.

  15. 15.

    Statistics online

  16. 16.

    Income below 60% of the national median household income. In 2009, i.e., after the financial crisis of 2008, the risk of poverty was 49.8% for non-EU foreigners, 18.1% for EU foreigners and 12.1% for Belgians (SPF Intégration sociale, 2020).

  17. 17.

    For instance, article 12 of the Belgian-Moroccan agreement provides that “Moroccan workers established in Belgium on a permanent or temporary basis will enjoy equal treatment with Belgian workers as regards social benefits and working conditions” (Moniteur belge, 17th June 1977). However, in practice, Moroccan workers in the coal mines did not get the conventional wage because of their alleged lower performance which should have led to their dismissal, but it did not (Frennet, 2003: 15).

  18. 18.

    These two laws were accompanied by further restrictive measures in the field of family reunification and of social assistance.

  19. 19.

    The minimum guaranteed income (minimex) has been extended to EU members, refugees and stateless persons residing on Belgian territory by application of international treaties. For disabled people, the allowance is not granted to foreigners from third countries, but it has been extended to EU members, refugees and stateless persons, and to foreigners (1991) who have benefited from the family allowances for the disabled children up to the age of 21 (children of immigrants). As for Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians, the EEC agreements provided equal treatment in social security related to old age pensions, disability, and death pensions, health care, and family benefits. This right is not recognized for Turkish. As for the guaranteed income for the elderly, it was extended to foreigners with legal residence rights: North Africans have access to it through social security agreements with the EEC, but not the Turkish.

  20. 20.

    From the 80s, if successive governments have held social protection system, yet they disconnected the principle of insurance from vested rights which no longer depend on workers’ social contributions, limited unemployment, and sickness benefits according to the household status, increased existing co-payments and imposed a special crisis premium. In 2017, the retirement age has been raised to 67 instead of 65, the early retirement was removed, and unemployment insurance rights restricted.

  21. 21.

    NVA came to power for the first time following the regional election in 2004 and at the federal level in 2014.

  22. 22.

    Royal Decree of 18 August 1989, which came into force on 1 January 1990.

  23. 23.

    Geneva Convention for Refugees, Convention on the Rights of Child, the European Convention on Human Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

  24. 24.

    Data taken from the 7th wave of the European Social Survey (ESS). This is the answer to the following question: “Most people who come to live here work and pay taxes. They also use social and health services. Do you think that people who come to live here benefit more than they produce or that they produce more than they benefit?”.

  25. 25.

    The tightening of obstacles to get access to Belgian citizenship during parliamentary debates has been justified by the fear of abuse and the necessity to protect the welfare state (Gsir et al., 2016).

  26. 26.

    These reforms reflect the shift from solidarity, which until then had prevailed as a political choice, to the economic logic of social security that put the more vulnerable people in competition (Bec, 2015).

  27. 27.

    Alesina et al. (2019) showed the correlation between the negative representation of migrants and the opposition of national citizens to welfare redistribution to them, particularly citizens who declare being far right (anti-redistributive xenophobia).

  28. 28.

    La Dernière Heure, October 1991 quoted by Vandemeulebrouck (1997: 215–216).

  29. 29.

    The Christian Democrat governor of West Flanders province appealed through a radio message the population of Zeebrugge not to help undocumented migrants from Calais on their way to England: “Don’t feed the refugees, otherwise others will come” (La Libre Belgique, 3/02/2016)

  30. 30.

    Fears of certain woes and persons that would threaten values and the well-being of the society.

  31. 31.

    Christian Democrats (CD&V) stated that “Belgium should not become ‘Europe’s welfare agency” (Het Nieuwsblad, 5 June 2013). The president of NVA pointed out the welfare cost for EU citizens is “unbearable in times of economic crisis” (quoted in Gsir et al., 2016: 1663).

  32. 32.

  33. 33.

    This involves the control of the justification of the urgent nature of the aid, the creation of a post of medical inspector, the recuperation of undue expenses from doctors and hospitals, and the sanctioning of the Public Center for Social Action in case of error in the allocation of medical aid.

  34. 34.

    See “Denis Ducarme se confie: “Les soins de confort gratuits pour les migrants, c’est fini”, La Dernière Heure (20/01/18),

  35. 35.

    See “Réforme de l’aide médicale urgente: un “vrai scandale” pour Médecins du Monde et le Ciré”, La Libre (20/1/2018),

  36. 36.

    UMA “is not limited to emergency care but covers all preventive and curative medical care”. Royal Decree of 12 Dec. 1996.

  37. 37.

    See “Aide médicale urgente: Médecins du monde pointe les conséquences “dramatiques” de la réforme”, Belga press agency (15/03/18),

  38. 38.

    This statement was made during the general election campaign in May 2019 where NVA was in competition with the far-right party, Vlaams Belang, which was rising in the polls.

  39. 39.

    See “Francken veut limiter l’accès à la sécurité sociale pour réduire la migration”, Belga press agency (25/4/2019),

  40. 40.

    Sénat, Annales parlementaires (25/11/1992: 430).

  41. 41.

    In 2017, Theo Francken stated that his reform project aimed at fighting against abuses and protecting vulnerable people (Vallet, 2017).

  42. 42.

    Article 9ter the 15/12/1980 Act on the Access to the Territory, Stay, Settlement and Removal of Foreigners.

  43. 43.

    This white book triggered an investigation by the Federal Ombudsman who concluded in November 2016 that the processing time of the files was unreliable, the doctors’ working conditions of the OE were poor and had an impact on the quality of care, the equal treatment of applicants and medical ethics were undermined, and that individual situations and the continuity of care were not considered when patients were removed (Médiateur federal, 2016).

  44. 44.

    Only 7% of applications were admissible in 2012 and 8.5% in 2014 (Klausser, 2015: 4).

  45. 45.

    The OE itself acknowledges in its 2011 activity report that: “the extended absence of a sufficient number of doctors has, over the same years, severely hampered the management of cases, as a substantive examination cannot be carried out without the intervention of a medical officer. (…) Thus, the department had 2 doctors at the end of 2009, 7 at the end of 2010 and 16 at the end of 2011” (Office des Étrangers, 2011: 51).

  46. 46.

    The last poll on intended vote of Belgians carried out in June 2021 gave 26.1% (+2.5%) to Vlaams Belang and 21.8% (+1.8%) to NVA: that is almost one voter out of two (47.9%) who would vote for extreme right and nationalist parties in Flanders.

  47. 47.

    The last reform of Francken about migrants’ social rights provides fines for lawyers, doctors, and social institutions (hospitals and PCSA) in case of abusive legal procedure or care for “false migrants”. See Francken and Vermeersch (2019).

  48. 48.

    The social protection system has been in stake from the 80s between Flemish and French-speaking political parties since nationalist and far-right political position have put in question national solidarity on which that system is still operates today (excepted for family benefits regionalized in 2019). These parties claim the split of social security because of pretending migrants and Walloon’s abuses.