Blindspots in free movement lead to homelessness – Simona Barbu and Sergio Pérez Barranco

Mobile EU citizens can fall through national safety nets. A European Commission communication should strengthen this thesis.

destitution,homeless,homelessness,eu citizens,free movement
On the move but on the street in Paris (Aleksandr Medvedkov / shutterstock.com)

Freedom of movement is a major achievement of the European Union, so it can be difficult to talk about situations in which it fails. But they exist: evidence from the ground suggests that mobile EU citizens are often confronted with challenges when entering another member state, registering with the domestic authorities and securing rights which should be granted under EU legislation.

Some become vulnerable, end up in destitution and experience homelessness in its various forms, as defined in the European Typology on Homelessness and Housing Exclusion. We do not know the extent of this, because European-wide data do not exist. Service providers for homeless people however work daily with a large number of EU citizens in cities—such as London, Copenhagen, Vienna, Lyon, Paris, Luxembourg, Barcelona, ​​Münster or Stockholm—where many lack a roof over their heads or are in inadequate housing.

These migrants in search of better opportunities were likely not homeless in their countries of origin. Their housing situation may not have been ideal there either but they would not have been sleeping rough.

Restrictive interpretation

Several factors contribute to pushing such individuals into homelessness when they move. The directive (2004/38) governing free movement may be restrictively interpreted when transposed at national level, regarding the notions of ‘worker’, a ‘genuine chance of being engaged’ and having sufficient resources so as to not become an ‘unreasonable burden’ on the national social assistance system. Many legal and administrative barriers may deny mobile EU citizens full access to rights and participation on an equal footing with individuals drawn from the host society.

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A Romanian citizen sleeping rough in Copenhagen complained:

The EU laws should be respected by all member states, because we migrants are not helped with anything, we are seen as garbage. Our rights are not respected, and the police are abusive towards us. We are very marginalized and many times we cannot defend ourselves. Even though funding is coming from the EU for shelters, food and so on, we still do not feel respected. I feel like the government and police are trying to get rid of us. We get fines, we are often stopped by police when collecting bottles and we need more support for [vindication of] our rights.

Having a precarious or informal job and experiencing health issues, exploitation or even human trafficking add to the risk of homelessness. Discrimination may play an important role too for those of minority affiliation or origin, such as LGBT+ or Roma individuals.

Raising awareness

FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless, has developed a project, Protecting the Rights of Destitute mobile EU Citizens (PRODEC), to raise awareness about homelessness among mobile EU citizens at the European political level and to empower those who have become destitute to claim their rights. Support is ensured from the European Program for Integration and Migration, so we can work with our members to build their capacity for offering quality services.

On the ground, non-governmental organizations have developed good practices in supporting EU citizens who experience destitution, going beyond the basic offer of a place to sleep and a warm meal. Services include support to exit or indeed prevent homelessness, counseling on access to the labor market—preparing CVs, applying for jobs, registering in the national system—and, when needed, legal representation and casework, as well as strategic litigation.


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Homelessness service providers have become important advocates for destitute mobile EU citizens, conducting research on and communicating their rights, while legal-aid organizations promote a human rights-based approach. Such services allow their beneficiaries to understand better national systems and empower them to gain access to the labor market.

The EU has committed itself to fighting inequalities and supporting all its citizens who suffer from oppression or discrimination, particularly those experiencing destitution. Legitimate worries around the lack of sufficient resources to support national citizens are raised by some of the countries where many EU migrants arrive. This reasoning should not however be used to the detriment of mobile EU citizens.

Unique opportunity

The European Commission is preparing a communication on directive 2004/38, to clarify its interpretation by member states. This is a unique opportunity to address experiences of destitution among mobile EU citizens and especially its causes, to ensure no one is left behind in the context of free movement.The vague definition of a ‘worker’ should be discussed, as well as available access to healthcare and education. The commission must also bring clarity to the ‘genuine chance of being engaged’ concept and the requirements to prove possession of sufficient resources and have comprehensive sickness insurance.

The EU and member states must establish the right of mobile EU citizens to safe and stable accommodation regardless of their administrative status, starting with emergency shelters. More work is needed with member states on increasing the accommodation they offer, to avoid people falling into homelessness. That way an important step would be made towards achieving the first objective of the Lisbon declaration signed by all 27 member states in June 2021—that ‘no one sleeps rough for lack of accessible, safe and appropriate emergency accommodation’.

Co-ordination with member states is also required to ensure registration processes for mobile EU citizens are easy to follow and as accessible as possible. More financial and administrative support for approachable civil-society organizations should be made available, including homeless service providers offering counseling to mobile EU citizens. The new communication could explore inclusion of a specific category of residence in the rules governing free movement for those who find themselves in highly vulnerable situations.

Mobile EU citizens should have access to social security, ensured by the country of residence or the country of origin, so no person ends up in destitution. This could be achieved by improving social-security co-ordination among member states to ensure rapid and effective portability of rights.

The commission guidance should also consider gender and sexual orientation, ethnicity, age and disability as potential bases for discrimination and so vulnerability to destitution. Finally, data collection and researchon destitute mobile EU citizens should be improved, with which a pilot project under the Action Plan of the European Platform on Combating Homelessness can help.

The commission and member states must uphold the fundamental rights of vulnerable citizens and take measures to empower people to exit destitution and homelessness. The coming communication should counter restrictive approaches at national level and advance on making free movement accessible and fair for all.

Simona Barbu is FEANTSA’s policy officer in charge of migration. She previously worked in a leading Roma-rights organization in Romania, as well as on research projects and assisting mobile EU citizens living homeless in Denmark.

Sergio Pérez Barranco is a project officer working on FEANTSA’s project ‘Protecting the Rights of Destitute mobile EU Citizens’.

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