Vulnerable EU Citizens: Navigating the Gaps in European freedom of movement

The European right to freedom of movement allows any EU citizen to live, work and move freely between Member States, ensuring equal treatment and non-discrimination. However, if you take a closer look at this picture, some gaps appear. As is tragic with respect to most such gaps, it is already-vulnerable groups which are most likely to fall through them.

Romanian EU passport

This article is an output of the International Summer School for Young Researchers “Citizenship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe” which took place in Košice, Slovakia, in September 2023 and was organised by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung offices in Prague and Warsaw, Leipzig University and the University of Rzeszów.


EU-citizens’ right to freedom of movement, a cornerstone of the European Union, offers the promise of a unified, interconnected continent. It affords any EU citizen the right to live, work, and move freely among the Member States, all while ensuring equal treatment and non-discrimination. However, when we take a closer look at this picture, the presence of hidden gaps becomes evident. As often is the case with such weak spots, it is already-vulnerable groups who are most at risk of falling through them. This article explores the perspective of European citizens who are not commonly considered within the scope of European freedom of movement. Its aim is to stimulate conceptual criticism and challenge our understanding of European citizenship.

Mobile EU citizens in vulnerable situations often find themselves outside the media spotlight, as these citizens do not align with the typical narrative of European freedom of movement and intra-EU migration.

In the realm of European migration politics, an often-overlooked group is that of “Vulnerable EU Citizens”, a term coined by the Swedish Government. The term aims to categorize indivi-duals who are citizens of an EU Member State other than Sweden and who reside in Sweden in conditions of destitution and marginalization, typically marked by a lack of housing and a regular income.[1] Without health insurance from their home country, these individuals face the requirement to make upfront or full payments when accessing the Swedish healthcare system. As EU citizens, they also encounter barriers to entering city-run shelters, making them reliant on support from civil society actors or the church.[2] Research conducted by Do-minic Teodorescu and Irene Molina on Romanian Roma street workers in Sweden illustrates the living conditions experienced by such vulnerable EU citizens in Uppsala.

The participants in the study had often lived in precarious housing conditions in Romania and originally moved to Sweden with the aim of earning an income and subsequently improving their houses in Romania. One interviewee described her past struggles with renting an apartment after arriving in Sweden. She eventually set up a makeshift home using a plastic tent and blankets in an area she rented from the town hall. In this makeshift dwelling, the interviewee and her two children eventually built a dwelling with two rooms, but the family still lacks running water and electricity. The family lives in imminent risk of eviction because they do not have documented permission to access the land where they de facto reside. Another interviewee in a similar situation was, at the time of the interview, at risk of losing custody of her children altogether after they were taken into state care. Because she could not provide a permanent address in either Sweden or Romania, social services could not return her children to her. [3]

Originally situated within the Swedish context, the concept of Vulnerable EU Citizens proves insightful when viewed from a broader perspective, shedding light on the interplay between intra-EU migration, homelessness, and lack of legal status. Although it is pertinent to research on intra-European migration and homelessness, obtaining coherent data on Vulnerable EU Citizens across all Member States poses a significant challenge. Surveys on homelessness in many European Member States do not include all types of homelessness and housing exclusion, as stated in the 2023 Overview of Housing Exclusion in Europe.[4] In Sweden, it was estimated in 2015 that around 4,700 people could be placed in that category at the time.[5] For the purpose of this article, this term aims to shed light on a subset of European citizens facing significant obstacles in securing necessities such as shelter, housing, sanitation, and health services.

EU law sets specific criteria for residency in Member States, which include having a job, being a student, actively seeking employment, or possessing adequate resources for self-support, along with health insurance. Unfortunately, many Vulnerable EU Citizens, by definition, do not meet these criteria. Consequently, they are denied permanent residence status when migrating to other EU countries. This is where an invisible group emerges:  EU citizens who have been living in European countries outside of their country of origin on a permanent basis but who are lacking proper status. While they might not face formal challenges to their presence, they remain excluded from the formal labor market, unable to access social benefits or secure permanent residence.


In terms of migration policies, EU citizens are “insiders”. However, in terms of access to social services, EU citizenship does not guarantee anybody a seat at the table.

When we contrast Vulnerable EU Citizens with Third Country Nationals (TCN),[6] a stark contrast emerges. EU citizens enjoy a valuable privilege—the right to freedom of movement within the EU/EEA common area. However, in comparison to national citizens and TCNs with permanent residency status, they are outsiders. The paradox arising from this is that Vulnerable EU Citizens are especially not covered, neither by immigration policy nor by social welfare policy, leaving a gap in the instruments available to tackle their issues.

In the realm of immigration, EU countries receiving EU citizens lack the immigration control tools typically used for non-EU citizens, making EU citizens, whether they are vulnerable or not, “insiders” in this regard. However, when it comes to social policy, intra-EU migrants are often considered outsiders.[7] As Vulnerable EU Citizens, by definition, lack regular employment and stable housing, many resort to informal labor like collecting bottles or begging. The complexity here stems from the European Union’s lack of harmonized regulations and lack of theappropriate implementation of access to services such as temporary shelter, adequate housing, sanitation, or health services. Depending on the destination country, the working situation of these individuals outside the formal labor market renders them ineligible for social assistance, thus making their status as “outsiders” tangible. The latter weighs particularly heavily on them, as we are talking about people who find themselves in situations of temporary or permanent homelessness.


The treatment of Roma communities, a group already marginalized and subject to pervasive discrimination across Europe, reveals the contrast, within European freedom of movement, between desirable versus undesirable migrants.

The existing gap could be seen as an unintended consequence of the incoherent migration policy across Europe. However, the case of mobile European Roma affords us an analysis of the underlying, problematic disposition of European freedom of movement. When addressing Vulnerable EU Citizens, it is important to recognize that Roma people constitute just one segment of this group. Notably, East European Roma from countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, or Slovakia can be found among those largely encountered in this group.[8] Research on Roma migration in Europe intersects with the broader issue under discussion in this article and makes a crucial aspect of it evident. A persistent concern affecting the Vulnerable EU Citizens who identify as Roma is the tendency of the destination countries to offload responsibility for these individuals onto their countries of origin, effect-ively suggesting that Roma people from Bulgaria, for instance, should be addressed by the Bulgarian authorities. As a result, most measures undertaken by the destination countries are aimed at deterrence only with regard to such people, thereby neglecting their responsibility for Vulnerable EU Citizens.

This observable pattern is undeniably a result of anti-Romani racism and the marginalization of Romani communities. Taking a broader perspective, it highlights the emergence of a division within the European right to freedom of movement, where a clear distinction is drawn between those deemed desirable to act upon their right and those perceived as undesirable to do so. In their research on Roma migration in Europe, Can Yıldız and Nicholas De Genova connect the issues of undesirable migration within European freedom of  movement by stating that the rejection of “the ‘undesirable’ mobility of Roma ‘citizens’ reveals a constitutive contradiction within the larger EU-ropean project”.[9] The mobility of Vulnerable EU citizens - meaning those who do not fulfil the provisions stated by the European Commission but who nevertheless take advantage of their mobility - shows the other side of intra-European migration, whereby the seemingly self-determined, responsible freedom of individual movement into migration becomes framed as a problem. This happens especially when this mobility is perceived as a matter of group mobility of racialized collectives, as is the case with Roma migration.[10] The unofficial division into “desirable” and “undesirable” intra-European migrants occurs as a result. The latter are often portrayed as a security risk to justify restricting their mobility.


Within the division of the “desirable” and “undesirable” intra-EU migrants, the destination countries often shift responsibility for the latter to their countries of origin.

In line with this narrative, the destination countries’ reaction has been to shift responsibility to the home countries of the “undesirable” intra-EU migrants. Sweden, for example, has allocated funds to NGOs operating to support Roma communities in Romania.[11] Less subtle has been the case of the French authorities sending Romanian citizens, many of whom are Roma people, back to Romania under the so-called voluntary scheme of Humanitarian Aid Returns.[12]  As another strategy, policymakers have turned to criminal justice measures to address begging and migration. Denmark went as far as imposing a ban on begging, and in Norway, municipal bans on outdoor sleeping, particularly in Oslo, have been applied.[13] This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as "crimmigration," encompasses efforts such as implementing begging bans, imposing higher penalties for begging, and enforcing strict regulations on rough sleeping. The intention behind these measures is to render life in the receiving country more challenging and less “profitable” for Vulnerable EU Citizens. [14]


Concluding remarks

The case of the inadequate treatment of East European Roma in western EU Member States reveals the darker side to European freedom of movement. Mobile Vulnerable EU Citizens’ needs are far from properly addressed. With a serious lack of policy tools, we can see the rather questionable approaches of the Member States towards this group. As we contemplate these issues, one thing becomes abundantly clear:  The European Union requires a more harmonized, compassionate approach to social services and immigration policies. Shedding light on these hidden challenges is the first step toward creating a fairer, more supportive approach. The European right to freedom of movement is, after all, a right to be enjoyed by all European Union citizens.


The views and conclusions expressed in the text represent the author's opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. 

[1] Cf. Amnesty International (2018)

[2] Cf. Barker (2017)

[3] cf. Teodescuru/ Molina, 2020

[4] Cf. Feantsa (2023)

[5]Amnesty International (2018), p.6

[6] As defined by the European Commission, a Third Country National is any person who is not a citizen of the European Union and who is not a person enjoying the European Union right to freedom of movement, see  (last accessed 01/10/2024).

[7] Cf. Borevi, K. (2023)

[8] For case research on Roma migration and/or housing exclusion see Cherkezova/ Tomova (2013); on Roma and Non-Roma migration from CEE Countries, Enache (2020) or Tervonen/Enache (2017); on Roma migration to Helsinki, Barker (2017); or Dahlstedt/Olson (2016) on Sweden

[9] Cf. Yıldız/ De Genove (2017), p. 435

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cf. Barker (2017).

[12] Cf. European Roma Rights Centre (2012)

[13] Cf. Frieberg (2020), p. 229

[14] Cf. Barker (2017). On the term “crimmigration”, see Stumpf J (2006)



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