How do undocumented migrants fare in the new EU funds?

The EU budget provides opportunities for supporting migrants’ inclusion through different funding instruments, although each fund has a specific scope that allows for specific activities for a specific target group. Some of these funds allow EU member states to fund measures for newly arrived third country nationals, as well as to foster migrants’ access to social services and integration in employment.

Undocumented migrants are generally cut off from such resources in EU funding schemes. Consequently, organisations supporting the integration of undocumented migrants are usually unable to access EU funding schemes to fund projects involving undocumented migrants.

PICUM has consistently challenged this limitation and has called for the inclusion of undocumented migrants among the beneficiaries of EU funding instruments that target the social inclusion of third country nationals. In the past two years, PICUM has worked together with ECRE to advocate for inclusive priorities for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees within the new EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021 – 2027, which defines allocations to different EU budget lines for the coming seven years.

In addition to the MFF, an unprecedented economic stimulus was set up through the Next Generation EU to support EU member states in the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. As these resources are managed at the member states’ level and represent a unique support to finance reforms and economic recovery, it is difficult to determine to what extent migrants will directly benefit from them.
The following analysis summarises the state of the achievements in the funding instruments in the MFF that can support migrants’ inclusion, and highlights what actions are still needed. It doesn’t cover the ongoing debate over the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRP) of Next Generation EU, as there are no explicit requirements to investing part of these in inclusion.

European Social Fund Plus (ESF+)

The ESF+ will replace the current European Social Fund, the main EU instrument financing programmes for employment, social inclusion and skills. The ESF+ will include the current Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), the Youth Employment Initiative (YEI) and the Employment and Social Innovation instrument.

Involving undocumented migrants in programmes funded through ESF has proved challenging, considering that the ESF aims at promoting employability and enhancing skills for employment. Social inclusion projects that have been funded through ESF usually require users to be able to regularly access the labour market. Past experiences of funding to irregular migrants through the ESF are limited, and almost inexistent in recent years. This is also due to the reporting obligations that generally force beneficiary organisations to report details of service users, including social security numbers, which may not be available for undocumented migrants.

The new ESF+ will no longer focus uniquely on supporting employability but will also include broader social inclusion objectives, despite keeping a treaty-based mission to promote employment and training across the EU.

The specific objectives of the ESF+ agreed by EU co-legislators are divided into three pillars: education, employment and social inclusion. ESF+ actions implemented under the social inclusion pillar could be provided regardless of residence status and access to the labour market.

The ESF+ also includes a full objective on promoting the socio-economic integration of third country nationals, including migrants (residence status is not mentioned in the definition). Despite a more inclusive regulation, the allocation of resources will highly depend on national choices, including EU member states’ interpretation of their reporting obligations. There is a high risk that EU member states will resist this possible change and the administrative adjustments that it would require, and continue to follow more restrictive rules, including in the reporting duties, that guided the implementation of previous funds.

Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF)

In line with the EU approach on migration enforcement, the main fund supporting integration of third country nationals is strictly linked to regularly residing migrants, with a specific focus on asylum seekers and recognised beneficiaries of international and humanitarian protection. Undocumented migrants are targeted through AMIF’s objective to “counter irregular migration, and ensure effective, safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as to contribute to and to promote effective initial reintegration in third countries”. AMIF can support alternatives to detention, including the promotion of community-based case management, and countering labour exploitation.

Regarding labour exploitation, the regulation allows for funding the establishment and implementation of mechanisms through which irregular migrants can claim back payments and lodge complaints against their employers, as well as information and awareness‑raising campaigns to inform employers and irregular migrants about their rights and obligations pursuant to Directive 2009/52/EC. If member states would actually choose to implement such actions in their national programmes, it is not specified what institution would be responsible for such actions: the involvement of the migration authorities, for instance could undermine the effectiveness of the complaint mechanisms.

There are limited but promising developments regarding the AMIF resources that are managed directly at the EU level, and that tend to be more flexible in reporting requirements. The European Commission clarified, in an explanatory note to a recent call for proposals, that while not being the main target group of the fund, irregularly residing third country nationals are not excluded. The increase of the share of AMIF funding that will be be managed directly by the Commission in the next 7 years might lead to more flexibility in transnational calls for proposals on integration.

Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived (FEAD)

Through its inclusion in the ESF+, the FEAD will continue deliver on poverty reduction for the next two years thanks to the extension included in the Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories of Europe (React-EU initiative). This initiative, part of the EU recovery plan ‘Next Generation EU’, will extend the EU’s cohesion policy for the past multiannual financial framework (2014 – 2020) until 2022 and will provide new resources to support recovery from the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

FEAD is the only EU funding programme that tackles social exclusion and material deprivation, and does not exclude undocumented migrants from its potential beneficiaries, especially when linked to food and material support. Nevertheless, as it is managed by national governments in cooperation with local authorities, large social service organisations and food banks, the nature of the support varies considerably.

In many EU member states, FEAD is used to support in-kind basic social assistance, including basic material and food aid. Obstacles may arise depending on the mechanisms chosen to provide such services, as for instance paper or electronic vouchers for grocery products. In the case of voucher mechanisms, several member states require beneficiaries to have a social security number and/or to be included in specific lists of people with little to no income. This is obviously a huge barrier for undocumented migrants, who are not able to provide such documents or to prove their income. For this reason, and despite the lack of specific limitations in the EU legislation, undocumented migrants can generally access distribution of food packages and hot meals provided by charities and soup kitchens through FEAD, but are often unable to benefit from more systematic support that the fund offers to families or individuals experiencing extreme social exclusion.

The EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion: integration spending at the EU level

With an increased number of funding instrument supporting integration, it is crucial for the EU and member states to ensure effective synergies among different funds and set up a strategy with clear goals that coordinates the use of these resources. The Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion (released in November 2020) aims at guiding EU actions on inclusion, and allocates EU funding to social services for third country nationals.

While integration policy is an exclusive competence of EU member states, the EU can address the socio-economic inclusion of third country nationals through its own funding, complementing national policies and resources. The new Action Plan refers to the various EU funds which will allow member states to support integration, including the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF); European Social Fund Plus (ESF+); the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF); the Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD); and Erasmus+. The duration of the Action Plan, which will cover the seven years of the new MFF (2020-2027), will ensure consistency in the management of the funds.

The Action Plan reflects a strategy of the European Commission and can recommend actions to member states, but cannot provide mechanisms for enforcing these recommendations. The actions that it proposes focus mainly on refugees, asylum seekers and regular migrants; however, it does not explicitly exclude irregular migrants. This is a marked improvement from the previous Action Plan, which dates back to 2016, and which was limited to ‘regularly residing third country nationals’. Moreover, the new Action Plan includes a number of openings for specific target groups, by recognising for instance that access to health services varies considerably depending on people’s migration status, and by making it explicit that the upcoming EU Comprehensive Strategy on the Rights of the Child should enable all children, regardless of residence status, to have equal access to the same set of rights and protection. Additionally, the Commission’s proposal on the Child Guarantee, that is meant to be implemented through the ESF+, clearly defines children with a migrant background ‘irrespective of their migration status’. In this sense, it may be possible to see more flexibility in EU-managed funding for policies on children’s inclusion, as well as for policies aiming at ensuring access to healthcare for all.

The programming phase at member states’ level

To ensure that EU resources can support the social inclusion of migrants regardless of their residence status, it is important that the preparation of national programmes of EU funds, which started in late 2020 and will continue for most of 2021, recognises the existing barriers and the arising opportunities to overcome them: current reporting and eligibility requirements prevent the extension of EU-funded services to an important number of people who should qualify as part of ‘vulnerable groups’, and could benefit from EU-funded programmes.

The texts approved by the European institutions for ESF+ refer extensively to ‘most vulnerable’ and ‘excluded’ groups: for instance, they recommend that the ESF+ is used for “promoting the access to healthcare for people in vulnerable situations”. Despite these positive developments, there is a concrete risk that resistance to change in public administrations and lack of clear instructions from the European level will undermine an extension of funded actions to undocumented migrants.

To ensure that such measures will not exclude undocumented migrants, actions need to take place at the member states level, within the managing authorities responsible for ESF and FEAD. It is important to ensure that the right information on the scope of EU funds, including especially the ESF+, reaches out to managing authorities. The upcoming months of 2021 are particularly strategic to reach out to managing authorities with clear recommendations on those vulnerable groups that should be prioritised in social inclusion measures.

This definition is meant to refer to all people outside the EU including both migrants and beneficiaries and applicants for international protection. Among the wording chosen by the European institutions, that often tend to use the word ‘migrants’ referring only to refugees, it represents the most inclusive definition.

Since the signature of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, European institutions have the mandate to ‘provide incentives and support for the action of member sates with a view to promoting the integration of third-country nationals (Art. 79 of Treaty on functioning of the European Union).

Cover: Unsplash – Christian Lue