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'How can we make the welfare state immigration proof?'

Scientists of the faculty of Governance and Global Affairs research completely different subject, among which terrorism, cybercrime and migration. In the upcoming weeks we will give the floor to several of our very best researchers. In this episode: migration researcher Alexandre Afonso.

Alexandre's main fields of research are public policy and comparative political economy, for which he received a NWO Vidi grant recently. He focuses on welfare state and labour market reforms, the political economy of labour migration, and the role of parties and organised interests in policy reforms. We asked five questions about his research.

What is the topic of your research?

‘In general: the relationship between politics and the economy. More specific: immigration and the welfare state. Can (and should) politicians make the welfare state immigration proof?'

What did you find?

‘In the 19th century there was no welfare state. Taxes paid for a lot of things but not for social benefits. Which made restrictions on immigration superfluous;  as long as immigrants could provide for themselves they were welcome. But once social legislation came into being, with it came the need to determine who should profit and who shouldn’t. In general people are reluctant to pay if they feel the money goes to the wrong people. Citizens want guarantees: If you don’t pay for social provisions you don’t benefit. In The Netherlands we see this reflected in the discourse of the PVV. Welfare chauvinism, it is called: the idea that social benefits should be restricted to natives, or at least to people who are “deserving” (because they have contributed enough financially). Immigrants usually do not fall in these categories, and therefore they should be excluded. That’s how populist parties claim the welfare state.’

Refugees in Calais

Why is your research relevant?

'The political situation, and especially the discourse on immigration that comes with it, confronts us with the question:  Is the welfare state sustainable in the context of high immigration? Does immigration undermine support for the welfare state?  Most people have only vague notions about the underlying mechanisms. We need, in other words, more and better information.'

Demonstrations about immigrants


‘A generous welfare state works as an “immigration magnet” – at least that’s the general idea. Wrong! Such a state is expensive, so the tax burden is high, especially on low wage work. This makes menial and other low income jobs less available, and therefore less attractive to immigrants. Let’s not forget:  they do not come looking for social benefits, they come looking for work!‘

Your parents were immigrants themselves. What has that taught you?

‘I grew up in Switzerland, in a family with Portuguese roots. One of the many: the Portuguese  constitute the biggest group of immigrants in the country, and are nowadays considered “near natives”. And very well integrated.  But in the 1960s, the government was quite reluctant to recruit  immigrants from countries like Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey (or Portugal) -  “they are too different.”  In other words: the notions about “us” and “them” can shift quite dramatically over time. It mostly boils down to: Who seems similar enough to us?’

Want to read more about this research?

Read the Research booklet of the faculty of Governance and Global Affairs for free. In this publication, twelve researchers tell about their research.

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