Welfare chauvinism and the ‘hostile environment’ for immigration

Nativism is the norm in much of Europe, where dual welfarism and welfare chauvinism is policy. Nativist rhetoric and ideology has trickled down from radical right politicians to the mainstream and has become the new normal. The days are gone when the welfare state was supported as a safety net for those who needed it the most, or because everyone would need it in the later stages of life.

The Windrush scandal in Britain, which recently led to the resignation of the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, places racism and welfare chauvinism at its core. British Commonwealth citizens have been deprived of their human rights and denied passports, sacked from their jobs, put in detention centres or refused entry and even, it appears, deported. The Conservative government in Britain is now holding on by its fingernails in the run up to local elections on 3 May 2018 and trying to deny responsibility and any institutional racism. Racism is institutionalised and welfare chauvinism and anti-welfare propaganda has been internalised. This is especially evident in the attack on non-universal welfare states in Britain and the United States.  Support for the welfare state – after decades of marketization and privatisation of the public sector – is at an all-time low in these countries. Demonisation of welfare recipients and discriminatory rhetoric was even used by a Windrush victim’s mother. She spoke about her son Dexter Bristol 57, who died after spending five years of his life in a Kafkaesque nightmare with the Home Office while desperately trying to clarify his immigration  status. Bristol had been sacked from his cleaning job because he did not have a passport to prove his UK status. He was also denied benefits as officials insisted he was an illegal immigrant.

Mr Bristol’s mother, Sentina, described her son as a ‘quiet, thoughtful and intelligent man’. Yet she also said he was no ‘scrounger’ and that he had worked hard all his life. If he had been depending upon welfare, it seems, the general assumption would be that he would not have been entitled to the same immigration status and rights.

The demonization of people who depend upon welfare – especially the poor and immigrants – has become the norm in Britain today. The language used by the media and politicians, previously deployed by anti-welfare campaigners on the radical right, has become all too normalised. Long gone are the times when welfare was seen to be a right needed at certain points in life. With the legitimisation of the radical right across Europe, the criminalisation of people who, on occasion, need welfare payments is now the norm. It is also the norm for unqualified staff in Britain’s Department of Work and Pensions to challenge claims made by the disabled. Recipients of disability living allowance, for instance, now have to prove they are unfit to work or that they are worthy of welfare. This comes amid anti-welfare campaigns by politicians in mainstream parties as well as those on the radical right.  In 2017, the UN denounced Britain for failing to protect people with disabilities, on the back of news that hate crimes against disabled children has increased by 150% in the last couple of years.

In Britain, the government has promised to attack benefit fraud, campaigned against benefit recipients, and asked the general public to help to track down ‘fraudsters’ – all with little success. Allegations of fraud by the government and demonization of welfare recipients is bound to create conditions that are only ripe for hate crime.

Even in countries with well-established universal welfare states, access to welfare and eligibility is being increasingly questioned. A surge of anti-welfare sentiment erupted with the refugee ‘crisis’ from 2015, when many European leaders decided they could not afford to help refugees fleeing Syria. The only major exception in continental Europe was Germany, which welcomed more than a million refugees.

Even Sweden closed its borders in 2016. This is surprising, since Sweden is the country that received most refugees in relation to its population in 2015-2016, and has long taken pride in being a country of immigrants. Indeed, Sweden boasts a Labour party that has never accepted that immigration should be seen as a problem. In June 2016, the Swedish government decided to close its borders to Denmark as the government stressed it could no longer cope with refugees. This lead to a situation with ID checks on travel between the Denmark and Sweden, introduced for the first time in 50 years, with controls on the train journey between Copenhagen and Malmö resembling border crossings between east and West Germany during the Cold War.

Affordability of immigration and access to welfare are also high on the agenda in rich Scandinavian welfare states. Access to the welfare state by those perceived as ‘non deserving’ is being eroded by radical right parties like the Sweden Democrats (SD) or Danish People’s Party (DF).  In fact, the radical right in Denmark has driven this agenda – now even affecting Danes who have spent time out of the country. Increasingly it seems, welfare costs and concern about security are often blurred.

The influx of refugees in 2015-2016 spurred debates about security and welfare costs throughout Europe. On recommendations of the commission of Europe, in 2011 the Norwegian government had introduced temporary border controls in ports between Norway and Denmark already, announcing that the regulations it will remain in place that the ‘refugee situation is under control’. With the ‘migrant crisis’ more broadly, Scandinavian countries joined Austria and Germany in suspending Schengen freedom of movement at some land crossings and harbours in 2016.

The increasing disregard for human life and established rights is based on an ethno-nationalist outlook where anyone from the ‘outside’ is viewed with suspicion or a threat to the status quo – especially in places like Britain, where resources and welfare are seen to be in short supply. This is at odds with European social democratic models of egalitarianism and universal welfare access, even if conditionalities linked to labour market participation and ethnic roots and acceptance of assimilation have always been an aspect of these post-war states’ laws.

It is well established that in the more liberal Scandinavian states, welfare chauvinism does not have as much support among the public as in other European countries. In Denmark, for example, a dualistic welfare state was introduced between 2001 and 2011, whereby immigrants had limited access to welfare services. The discriminatory nature of the welfare state was only reversed in 2011 with the new coalition that did not depend on parliamentary support of the DF. Supporters of radical right parties remain the strongest supporter of a dualistic welfare state, but the Danish experiment shows that after ten years even the centre-left has started to find it acceptable. They are wrong to do so.

Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and an expert on the radical right and welfare chauvinism in Scandinavia. See her profile here.

© Mette Wiggen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).