In advance of the Policy Scotland Welfare Reform Network’s event ‘Supporting Migrants in Welfare Reform’, Dr Holly Porteous writes on ways to address challenges facing migrants from Central & Eastern Europe who are living, working and accessing social security services in rural Scotland.

Holly is currently a Researcher on the ESRC-funded project ‘Social Support and Migration in Scotland’ (SSAMIS), based between Swansea University and the University of Glasgow. 

Of vital importance for those following ongoing welfare reform developments in Scotland is considering how welfare services are experienced by different sectors of the population. In this piece I explore some of the challenges faced by service providers in providing appropriate support for the diverse needs of Central and Eastern European migrant communities. I also offer some examples of good practice and informal arrangements that were instrumental in helping migrants find out more about – and access – locally available support.

The examples used here are taken from fieldwork in the rural north of Scotland over the past year (2015), which included interviews with 75 migrants from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other former state socialist countries. This also involved extensive ethnographic observations, covering rural service providers including local councils, food banks, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), third sector and community initiatives, ESOL/educational providers, and local community and religious groups.

Specific issues facing migrants

Migrants face specific issues at every stage of accessing welfare services, many of which are centred on language and the difficulties of adjusting to a new country and lifestyle. Individuals with basic or no English may not feel confident enough to access often intimidatingly bureaucratic welfare services in the first place. On this basis, some migrants spoke about having been reluctant to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance due to a hope that a period of unemployment would be brief. This could result in sporadic periods of poverty and vulnerability when seasonal agency work dried up in the regional fishing or agricultural sectors.

Sparse or incomplete information about local services in Eastern European languages can add another layer of disadvantage in terms of awareness of the help available: one Polish family who worked and cared for an elderly relative with a long-term illness missed out on several years of financial support due to incorrect welfare support advice they received. They only realised they were able to get a reassessment when an English language tutor helped them to find the right contacts after the mother of the family happened to mention her circumstances.

The lack of access to a car could also cause issues in very rural areas with relatively infrequent public transport. Although the same was true for many non-migrant locals, for migrants this could be compounded by misunderstandings such as having difficulties speaking English on the phone. In a relatively common example, a migrant mother and daughter had used a rare day off work to get to the next town for what they believed was an appointment about a problematic housing situation. The service had in fact moved to drop-in only and it turned out to be too late in the day to be seen, meaning their time and money had been wasted. A lack of online information available in common migrant languages can also be a significant problem in terms of migrant access to welfare and support services as, although some services produce leaflets or websites in Polish or Russian for example, they do not always have the resources to continually update them when these services change or develop. Furthermore, recent cuts to local council budgets and relatively short-term funding cycles in the third sector can mean that just as word is getting around amongst migrant populations about a particular advice or drop-in service, that service is withdrawn.

Another problem is a lack of funding or patchy provision in services such as telephone interpreting services, resulting in the proliferation of informal arrangements that may cause further misunderstandings. I heard examples of Job Centre Plus clients being asked to bring a friend or family member to interpret often complex benefits-related issues. I spoke to one Latvian man who had been forced to use a food bank after being turned away from his local Job Centre Plus due to the lack of any interpreting service on the day. This patchy provision can lead to increased pressure on already busy voluntary-run services.

Accessing welfare as a ‘personal failure’

Many migrants I spoke to perceived welfare support as a symbol of personal failure, rather than something they were entitled to. This unfortunately reflects wider societal prejudices against welfare claimants, and was also prevalent amongst non-migrant locals. Amongst migrant populations these attitudes could be somewhat diluted by self-employed community interpreters, who were often instrumental in educating people about the local welfare system and encouraging them to apply for support to which they were entitled (e.g. Child Benefit). However, this support usually depended on being able to pay the interpreter a fee (usually around £20) for their services in the first place. This obviously may not always be an option for migrants who were unemployed or working in low-paid industries.

Sometimes third sector and voluntary services were able to react more quickly to migrant-specific issues than local councils or government agencies. The CAS branches and community hubs I observed had no budget available for telephone interpreters, but sometimes addressed migrant needs by taking on multilingual migrant staff or volunteers who could help a range of clients with issues around welfare or employment. This had the benefit of bypassing special migrant-centred services or events, which some migrants actively avoided as they saw it as contrary to their desire to integrate into the community. However, it should also be said that English-speaking migrants who volunteered to gain experience could end up under too much pressure due to an overall lack of other freely available interpreting services in small, rural communities. Providing more funded positions for speakers of migrant languages within local services could be a useful way of addressing issues around both language and social integration.

Although some of the challenging situations described above are not necessarily wholly specific to migrants, it is important to note that they are often compounded by problems with English as a second language, or the process of adjusting to a new context and local services. It can be anticipated that these issues will continue as processes of welfare reform continue to hit rural services. However, strategies such as employing migrants, encouraging them to volunteer, and providing information about local welfare services in a variety of languages can go some way towards addressing specific migrant needs and widening access to help and advice in rural communities.