Migrant destitution in Europe

Throughout Europe, thousands of migrants are deprived of their basic needs and denied their fundamental human rights. They have little or no access to education, social welfare, housing, healthcare and employment. They are left destitute as a consequence of state laws and policies. Their exclusion from society leads to new, invisible, borders that divide local communities, regions and countries.

For the last six years JRS has investigated the lives of destitute migrants in Europe, and the state policies that heave led to their situation. Its 2010 report, Living in Limbo, presents the reality of destitution in 13 countries.

Destitution affects many groups of migrants living in Europe, particularly individuals who have had their refugee application refused, or persons with an irregular legal status, but for valid reasons are unable to return to their country of origin. But destitution also affects those who already have a right to stay: persons in the process of applying for asylum, and person show have been officially recognised as refugees.


  • Affected persons
  • Recommendations
  • Hospitality
  • Reports
Who is affected by destitution?

Recognised refugees
Individuals and families who are granted international protection in an EU member state are not always as well taken care of as law requires. Throughout Europe there are refugees living in sub-standard conditions, and who are unable to receive treatment for injuries and trauma that have resulted from persecution.
In Italy, for example, there are no programmes to assist recognised refugees with housing, employment, or their social welfare needs. Many live in dilapidated shacks in Rome, unable to live a dignified life.

Asylum seekers
Many persons who apply for asylum protection in Europe do not have access to basic reception conditions during their determination procedure, or while they are in the appeals phase. Left without secure housing, medical care and employment, they are placed at a fundamental disadvantage at a time when they are extremely vulnerable.
Undocumented migrants
Many become undocumented due to serious livelihood pressures. They may have been refused asylum protection, or may have overstayed their visa, being unable to return home due to economic, social and political instability. They live in Europe without the most basic and fundamental rights.
Persons with a tolerated status
Throughout Europe there are persons who cannot return home for valid reasons. Their embassies may not come forward with necessary documentation, or the authorities may be unable to undertake removal. Many times these persons are given a ‘tolerated’ status. They can stay in the territory, but can do little else. In Germany, holders of ‘toleration’ hardly receive any social support. They remain stuck in a downward spiral of destitution, excluded from society.

What does JRS Europe recommend?

1. Fair and adequate living conditions
A key factor that leads migrants into destitution is the absence of adequate living conditions in EU member states, such as: access to reliable information, support providers and legal aid and secure housing.
States must provide for an environment that protects and upholds the fundamental dignity and rights of people, regardless of their legal status. This includes giving migrants opportunities and support to lift themselves out of destitution, and to live their lives to the fullest extent possible.
2. The protection of the forcibly displaced
Recognised refugees must be able to enjoy all their rights under international law. Asylum seekers must be afforded a protective environment during their determination procedure.
The State has a duty of care for destitute migrants who cannot be returned for legal and factual reasons, such as if their home country is too instable for return. This responsibility is based upon the State’s obligation to respect, protect and uphold everyone’s human rights regardless of nationality or status.
3. Access to education for all
Education serves the common good. It provides individuals with a strong measure of stability and dignity. It is a fundamental human right that should be enjoyed by everyone.
States should ensure that the children of destitute migrants have access to primary education. Adults should at least be allowed to undertake vocational training and higher education to enable self-sufficiency.

4. Guarantees to Health Care
A person’s ability to access health care is a basic human right. Healthy individuals ensure the good health of our communities. We see it as a means of community solidarity.
Poor health inhibits a migrant’s ability to find and maintain employment, or to take educational courses. This is why States must ensure access to not only emergency care, but to primary care as well.

5. Access to the formal labour market
Society misses out on the skills of migrants by not allowing them to obtain formal employment. Governments miss out on potential tax revenue and social security contributions. Migrants themselves become de-skilled and do not integrate into society.
States can limit and even prevent destitution by allowing migrants into the formal labour market. This is the best way to make use of their skills and talents, while encouraging self-sufficiency.

6. Access to social welfare
Social welfare policies should focus on self-sufficiency and independence. Migrants are eager to help themselves, but they just need help in doing so. All migrants, irrespective of their legal status, have a right to private and family life. Children have a right to be nurtured in a suitable home and environment.

Letting refugees come where we are

Hospitality is a core JRS value. It is at the heart of our work. But it is also a challenge. Hospitality is not just about going where refugees are, to be with them and to help them there. It is, first and foremost, about letting refugees come to where we are.

According to Michael Schöpf SJ, JRS Europe's Regional Director, hospitality means letting refugees "come to a place where we have made a home for ourselves, where we are safe, can rest and where we can be ourselves. It is about welcoming a stranger to the place that we have made for the people we love."

In our work, we try to live out the value of hospitality in two ways: by being hospitable to others, and by showing other people how to be hospitable themselves. Hospitality is not just an individual practice, but a community-based practice as well. It is a challenge for entire socities as it is for individual people.

Migrant and refugee destitution is the antithesis of hospitality. It is a consequence of society's establishment of invisible borders that separates 'us' from 'them'. By refocusing ourselves on the value of hospitality, we come to understand that there is only 'us': that we, together with migrants and refugees, form one community where we all seek to live in dignity and mutual respect.


JRS offices throughout Europe endeavour to turn hospitality from concept to action. This is done through projects that bring people together in respectful and dignified environments, where people get the chance to learn about each other and to simply be together.

The 'Welcome' project by JRS France addresses asylum seeker homelessness in France. French families volunteer to welcome an asylum seeker into their homes for one to three months at a time. Families offer much more than just a bed, roof and a warm meal: they offer asylum seekers the chance to come to know how French families live in their own homes. A service is provided, but more importantly doors are opened. By "welcoming a stranger" into their home, families do their small part to break down the invisible borders erected by society at large. It is not about us and the refugees -- but just us. Read more about the 'Welcome' project here.

JRS Portugal recruits migrants to volunteer their time at a botanical garden in the city of Lisbon. There migrants work together with locals on a shared community space. Local Portuguese citizens also volunteer to be a 'buddy' with a migrant. As a buddy, citizens spend their time with migrants, talk with them about local life and customs, teach them Portuguese and welcome migrants into their daily lives.

Every Thursday, JRS UK opens their doors to refugees who are living destitute in London. At the Thursday 'drop-in day', refugees can simply take a rest with tea and biscuits and meet with friends, or they can meet with JRS staff to receive various kinds of support. Nearly one hundred refugees visit JRS UK every Thursday. They know it as a place of safety, respite and quiet, and where they can be themselves without any fear.


Immigration control must not deny access to basic rights (2011)
JRS Europe's policy position on destitute forced migrants in Europe. Focuses on the need for EU states to grant forced migrants basic human rights such as access to food and shelter, education, health care and employment. 

The Invisible Borders: The destitution of migrants in Europe (2011)
A report from the major conference held by JRS Europe in Brussels on 29th March 2011. Contains summaries and conclusions of workshops, keynote speeches and panel presentations. The event was attended by approximately 100 people from civil society and government from around Europe. 

The Invisible Borders (2011)
A media briefing produced for a major conference on destitution organised by JRS Europe in March 2011. Lists case examples and major recommendations for EU policymakers and member state governments.

Living in Limbo (2010)
Investigates how forced migrants become destitute in several EU countries. The inability to access basic needs such as food and shelter, employment, education and health care are commonly experienced by destitute forced migrants. These are a result of a state policies that purposefully exclude migrants from enjoying basic human rights.