Newcomers Navigating the Welfare State

Experiences of Immigrants and Street-Level Bureaucrats with Belgium’s Social Assistance System

Edited by Hanne Vandermeerschen, Elsa Mescoli, Jean-Michel Lafleur, and Peter De Cuyper

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The needs of newcomers and the provided social assistance.

The topic of social assistance for migrant newcomers often sparks heated public debate and remains a prominent concern on the policy agenda. Society – including the target groups of welfare institutions – has experienced a growing level of diversity. This reality gives rise to new demands and changing profiles of individuals who benefit from welfare services. Welfare institutions, which are responsible for providing social assistance, play a crucial role in granting access to social benefits for newcomers. Moreover, the provision of social assistance can significantly influence the settlement and integration processes of migrants.

This book provides empirical insights into the alignment between the needs of newcomers and the service provided to them. It examines the accessibility of social assistance for newcomers from a comprehensive perspective, encompassing aspects such as gaining access (including equal access for all) and service availability, as well as the suitability of these services. By focusing on the Belgian Public Centres for Social Welfare as a case study, the authors explore the policies and practices related to social assistance and labour market activation for newcomers and the factors that influence individuals’ access to their rights.

By incorporating the perspectives of all the relevant stakeholders involved, drawing on the insights of social workers and managers as well as the experiences of newcomers themselves, this book offers a unique understanding of the interactions between immigrants, the welfare state, and street-level bureaucracy. It provides valuable insights for enhancing service provision, striving for a more inclusive approach.

Contributors: Adriana Costa Santos (Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles), Michelle Crijns (Wilde Ganzen Foundation), Peter De Cuyper (KU Leuven), Abraham Franssen (Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles), Angeliki Konstantinidou (University of Liège), Jean-Michel Lafleur (University of Liège), Jérémy Mandin (University of Liège), Carla Mascia (Université Libre de Bruxelles), Elsa Mescoli (University of Liège), Roberta Perna (Complutense University of Madrid), Marije Reidsma (KU Leuven), Hanne Vandermeerschen (KU Leuven), Youri Lou Vertongen (Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles).

Ebook available in Open Access.
This publication is GPRC-labeled (Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content).

Format: Edited volume - paperback

Size: 234 × 156 mm

320 pages

ISBN: 9789462703827

Publication: November 15, 2023

Languages: English

Elsa Mescoli is a post-doctoral researcher and Associate Professor at the University of Liège, Faculty of Social Sciences, CEDEM – Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies.
Hanne Vandermeerschen is a research expert in migrant integration at the University of Leuven, HIVA – Research Institute for Work and Society.
Jean-Michel Lafleur is Senior Research Associate at the FRS-FNRS and Associate Professor at the University of Liège (Center for Ethnic and Migration Studies). He is also the Coordinator of the IMISCOE Research Network.
Peter De Cuyper is a migrant integration expert and research manager at the University of Leuven, HIVA – Research Institute for Work and Society.

Social protection is the collective insurance against individual risks; however, when migrants, asylum seekers, and EU citizens access these social rights, the perception of the larger population differs, with some viewing migrants as receiving 'excessive' welfare benefits whilst take-up remains under the rate of natives. Vandermeerschen, Mescoli, Lafleur, and De Cuyper's book is exceptional in explaining how street-level bureaucrats employ privileged discretion to interpret formal rights, categorise, and stratify 'immigrants' based on shared understandings of deservingness. In doing so, social protection can paradoxically accentuate, rather than mitigate, social inequalities in countries with high welfare such as Belgium. This is a must-read for those interested how nation, belonging and borders are practiced and reimagined in contemporary Europe not only on their physical, flag flying frontier but in welfare provision, i.e. in invisible yet effectives sites of state bureaucracy. - Roxana Barbules, University of Leeds UK


One of the strengths of the book is its approach to 'accessibility' as a process of interaction between the institution and its implementers on the one hand, and the clients on the other. It focuses on how the welfare state deals with migrants and newcomers in its policies towards the socio-economically disadvantaged. By mapping the process of support at different levels, the study is valuable not only for researchers but also for policy makers and practitioners. The latter can learn a lot about their role in this process. Rinus Penninx, Em. Professor of the University of Amsterdam.


*'Newcomers Navigating the Welfare State’ is a wonderful book that sheds light on the implementation of welfare policy towards immigrant beneficiaries in Belgium. The book combines a plurality of perspectives and shows complexities surrounding provision of and access to social security benefits by newcomers. The detailed description and in-depth analysis goes beyond our current theoretical and empirical understanding of the intersection between welfare and migration governance. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in migration and social welfare studies. *- Bozena Sojka, University of Glasgow

This book offers in-depth insights into social assistance to newly arrived immigrant beneficiaries, based on research that gives voice to all stakeholders. Concepts of accessibility and 'street-level bureaucracy' explain social workers' social interventions and immigrants' experiences. A bold and nuanced analysis of how the safety net of our welfare state works. Highly recommended for policymakers and social workers.
Kristel Driessens, Universiteit Antwerpen