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12 November 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 5:58am

Cameron welcomes EU court “benefit tourism“ ruling, but what exactly are migrants entitled to here?

The European Court of Justice allows EU states to restrict benefits to out-of-work EU migrants, but welfare is already tight for all immigrants here.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The European Court of Justice has ruled this week that EU member states will have the power to block certain benefits for migrants who are not jobseeking. The idea is for EU countries to be given the ability to deny unemployment hand-outs to those EU citizens who can be deemed “economically inactive”.

It has been called a crackdown on “benefit tourism”, a common concern about immigration in Britain, in spite of the fact that EU migrants travel here overwhelmingly for work and study reasons, and are in the great majority of cases successful in finding employment.

David Cameron, under great pressure to reduce our net migration level, has welcomed this ruling, calling it “simple common sense”. And the website PoliticsHome is reporting that senior MEPs have told the Prime Minister that there is now no need to pursue major changes to EU free movement principles, which were to be central to his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership status.

However, defying the perception of Britain being particularly generous to its non-UK born residents, the welfare situation here is already very tight for all immigrants.

The government has recently introduced harsher rules for what EU migrants can receive. These include jobseekers from the European Economic Area (EEA) – predominantly migrants from EU states – having to wait three months before they can claim for Jobseekers’ Allowance. This is the same for accessing child benefit and child tax credits.

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To stay longer than three months, they have to be in work, actively seeking work, or have a genuine chance of being hired. Either that, or they have to prove that they have the resources to remain without being a burden on public services.

EU migrants cannot automatically claim benefits after three months here. They have to pass a “habitual residence test” under EU law. This covers the individual’s status regarding their duration of stay, activity, income if they are a student, family status, and housing situation. Even if they pass this, they can then only claim Jobseekers’ Allowance for six months – after that, only those with a job offer or proof they are likely to find work are allowed to continue claiming.

On top of the tests required under EU law, the UK applies an additional test: the “Right to reside”. This limits certain benefits. The European Commission sees this as an unfair extra hurdle and has referred the UK to the EU’s Court of Justice on the matter.

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However, it is a tougher situation for migrants from non-EU countries, who – to use the official language – do not have recourse to public funds until they have been a UK resident for five years. This means benefits alone are unlikely to be a realistic incentive for those travelling to the UK from outside the EU. Most are allowed to enter the UK for a limited period on condition that they don’t receive benefits. However, they are eligible for homelessness assistance when in accordance with government immigration and asylum policy.

But even those immigrants who arrive seeking asylum are not given an easy ride by the UK government. According to the DWP, asylum seekers are subject to immigration control and are excluded from claiming benefits. However, they receive cash benefits from the Home Office (known as s.95 support), at £36 per week. This hand-out was famously derided by the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, at a recent Home Affairs select committee hearing, claiming such benefits made asylum seekers see Britain as “El Dorado”.

If they are granted leave to remain by the Home Office, they are then allowed to reside in the UK either temporarily or permanently, and hence entitled to work and claim in benefits.

If, upon arrival, they are unable to support themselves and their family, while their application is being considered, they may be eligible for financial support to buy essentials, and to live in suitable housing. If they are granted housing, they have no choice about where to live, and it won’t be in London or the Southeast. A private company, Serco, is contracted by the government to house asylum seekers. Being a profit-making organisation, it inevitably chooses the cheapest housing for them, which means that there are certain, usually deprived, areas in Britain where a disproportionate number of asylum seekers settle, causing tensions in some already troubled communities.

Since 2005, most people recognised as refugees (a person is officially a refugee when they have their claim for asylum accepted by the government) have been given permission to stay in the UK for only five years, and can have their case reviewed at any time.

So, given the tough situation in the UK for migrants in terms of welfare, and the European Court of Justice simultaneously cracking down, the Prime Minister may have little more to gain if he continues pushing against the principle of free movement that is at the EU’s core.