She’s seen it all, heard it all, read it all: the debates on television, sound bites from worried ‘citizens’, and opinion pieces in the newspapers. People in the Netherlands don’t think the EU should continue to expand. After all, all those new EU citizens can travel freely and find work in every single EU country. So of course they’re all leaving for those countries that offer them the best opportunities.
‘But we actually don’t know very much about the role the welfare state plays in migrants’ decisions to move’, says Petra de Jong, a PhD researcher at demographic research institute NIDI, which is affiliated with the RUG. ‘People often base this assumption on gut feeling rather than empirical evidence.’
So De Jong went looking for that evidence, studying the migration among 25 different European countries between 2003 and 2008. She specifically looked at the migratory patterns of Bulgarian and Polish migrants – who form the largest group of migrants – when their countries joined the EU. She also held in-depth interviews with Dutch EU migrants from Great Britain, Poland, and Spain.
Her conclusions are clear: almost none of the migrants name social facilities as the reason for migrating. ‘Some people move to look for work, like young Spanish people when Spain was struck by the economic crisis. Or young people think it’s an adventure to move to a different country. Some people move to join their partner.’
What’s more, these migrants often know very little about the Dutch welfare state. ‘These migrants are of an age where most people are working. Only once they’ve been here for a while and something happens do they start figuring out what they’re entitled to’, says De Jong.
It looks like people are ‘socialised into the welfare state’, says De Jong. People from countries where the safety net isn’t as good don’t expect much from other countries.
But they’re not always enthusiastic about all the luxuries the Netherlands have to offer, either. ‘They feel healthcare and childcare are expensive.’ Migrants also have a hard time understanding the system of private insurance companies, deductibles, the care allowance, and general practitioners.
Finally, most migrants return to their country of origin before they’re old and start needing social services.
In other words, the fear of migrants using up all our funds is unfounded. In fact, it’s counterproductive. ‘When Poland and Bulgaria joined the European Union, more migrants from those countries actually returned there than before they joined’, says De Jong. ‘Ever since, they’ve been following the same pattern as German, British, and Spanish migrants, who often only came to the Netherlands for a few years.’
This means that the plans various EU countries have to try and curb migrants using social services are a bad idea. ‘If people feel migration will limit their social rights, migration becomes less attractive’, De Jong thinks. ‘But they have no reason to not migrate. It’s just not an issue.’