“The rules that are supposed to provide a flexible labour market in the EU make migrants vulnerable to social dumping and exploitation in the labour market,” Katrine Mayora Synnes says.

Study reveals the unseen struggles of unemployed Polish migrants in Norway

Many immigrant workers do not get help from the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration, but become dependent on help from charities once their employment contracts expire.

“Many migrants from Eastern Europe come to Norway on short-term contracts. When their contracts expire, they are sent from one government agency to another. They often end up without either employment income or public welfare benefits,” Katrine Mayora Synnes says.

She has a background in the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) and in the National Police Immigration Service in Kristiansand. She recently defended her doctorate at the University of Agder on unemployed Polish migrants' encounter with the Norwegian welfare state.

Synnes interviewed several unemployed Polish migrants. She interviewed 11 of them separately. She also did a group interview with 10 people. Additionally, she interviewed 14 NAV employees.

Katrine Mayora Synnes is a researcher at NORCE Norwegian Research Centre. She received her doctorate at the University of Agder.

Lost their rights to unemployment benefits

The researcher discovered that many of her interview subjects were entiltled to welfare benefits in the past, but had failed to apply for them. Many were not even aware they had such rights.

“Many of them could not speak Norwegian. They had little knowledge of how the bureaucracy works, and often had weak digital skills. They had difficulty finding out what they were entitled to and how to go about accessing it,” Synnes says.

To be entitled to unemployment benefits, you must register as a job seeker as soon as you lose your job.

The unemployed migrants lived on their savings instead, convinced that they would soon find work. When they remained unemployed over time, they lost their rights to unemployment benefits.

“The people I interviewed had been in formal employment over a long period of time. But when they lost their jobs and became unemployed for the long term, they spent all their savings. Many of them became homeless. All of them were dependent on help from charities,” Synnes says.

Most live in eastern Norway

Migrants looking for work must in principle register with the police no later than three months after they arrive in the country. Several of those interviewed by Synnes had never registered, and there are no official figures on the size of this group.

The researcher met many of the unemployed Polish migrants through charities that distribute food to the poor.

“Based on the contact with these charities, I got the impression that this marginal group is largest in eastern Norway. It’s difficult to say how many are in this position, but many charities say that more and more Eastern European migrants are asking for help,” Synnes says.

Restrictive practices at NAV

At NAV offices, the group of Polish migrants was largely seen as temporary labourers. They were assumed to have strong ties to Poland and a home to return to.

Although this may be true for some, it was not so for the people Synnes spoke to.

“The group I spoke to left Poland many years ago and lost contact with their family and network. They have no home to return to and cannot claim benefits in Poland either. Many of them felt they had a better chance of getting back on their feet in Norway,” she says.

In order for EU citizens to be entitled to social security benefits in Norway, their connection to Norway needs to be individually assessed, among other things. The researcher says that many NAV employees are restrictive towards unemployed Polish migrants.

Fall outside the welfare state

“Many NAV employees considered that Eastern Europeans who do not speak Norwegian do not have a strong connection to Norway. They thought it would be better for them to return to their country of origin, since they weren’t entitled to benefits in Norway anyway,” Synnes says.

Without the entitlement to unemployment, sickness or social security benefits, many in this group fall outside the welfare safety net. But Synnes also sees the challenges facing NAV.

“The regulations around this are very complex and difficult to understand. It is both diffuse and ambivalent. I did the interviews before the social security scandal, so NAV employees today may receive more training on EEA regulations,” she says.

Feel humiliated at NAV

Several in the group Synnes spoke to had approached NAV to ask for help but felt so humiliated that they gave up in the end. Many of them had tried to visit local NAV offices but were told to use online solutions.

“This seems to be an important factor in their marginalisation. They were met with closed doors, and it became impossible for them to navigate the system on their own,” Synnes says.

The fact that they were asked why they didn’t return to Poland also made them feel like a type of labourer that was no longer needed.

“They all felt that they were not wanted. They were never considered citizens, Norway just wanted them to leave when they no longer had a job. It was painful for them to experience rejection in this way,” Synnes says.

Some of them said that they preferred to fend for themselves no matter what it took, whether working undeclared or seeking charity.

In any case, they did not want to resume contact with NAV.

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