Published on People Move

The Migrant Rights Database

This page in:
The current negotiations for Global Compacts on the movement of people across international borders represent a milestone in the global governance of human migration. Until now, the rights and movement of people crossing international borders have been inadequately governed and incompletely protected by a fragmented patchwork of institutions and norms. In response, policy makers and activists are pursuing a global standard. However, there is a paucity of data about the baseline of international legal standards and the extent to which this baseline is reflected in the national legal frameworks of different destination states.

KNOMAD in collaboration with the International Migrants Bill of Rights tried to fill out the gap with this pilot Migrant Rights Database. The database applies a novel instrument that permits an objective, cross-national accounting of the laws protecting migrant rights enshrined in national legal frameworks. Across 65 indicators, the database captures 17 categories of migrant rights protections, including rights to life, liberty, due process, non-refoulement, nationality, labor, health, and a variety of freedoms. The pilot study covers five principal destination countries which include Germany, Mexico, the Russian Federation, South Africa, and Turkey.

Among the observed countries, South Africa and Mexico demonstrate the most complete protection of migrant rights in aggregate terms (73.4 percent for South Africa and 72.3 percent for Mexico) and in several categories. South Africa offers strong protections of rights relating to vulnerable migrants; life; nationality; and freedom of thought, opinion, and assembly. Mexico offers strong protections related to family, education, expulsion, asylum, and non-refoulement. Among the observed countries, Russia (65.7 percent) and Turkey (66.4 percent) demonstrate the most incomplete protection of migrant rights.

The Migrant Rights Database permits deeper evaluation beyond the comparison of means. For example, in analyzing the pairwise correlation between countries by each category of rights for which data are collected (vulnerable migrants, due process, etc.), we can not only uncover whether countries are similar or dissimilar in the aggregate, but also identify in which areas of rights they are similar or dissimilar. Beyond a call to improve rights protections vis-à-vis migrants, such analyses can provide more detailed and actionable policy guidance. Figure A.1 provides a graphical representation. The black solid line represents the global average based on the pilot countries that have been coded thus far.

Another layer of analysis involves identifying the most frequent (or core) indicators that governments have on the books. Thus, a specific set of rights can be identified to ease into conversations about more robust rights protections that governments can adopt. Additionally, the coding and reporting of similarly situated countries (for example, comparable countries in migration flows, economic conditions, etc.) can provide case studies for governments that are considering adopting more robust rights protections. From the initial coding, promising areas of converging law include rights associated with nationality; freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief; freedom of opinion and expression; labor; and equal protection. The greatest variation appears in categories related to the rights of legal personhood, vulnerable migrants, family, expulsion, asylum, and non-refoulement.

Policy Implications and Caveats

Based on the current five-country database, the following policy recommendations emerge.

1) States and civil society actors should ensure that the Global Compacts enshrine the full suite of human rights protections and do not derogate.
2) States and civil society actors, in their attempts to pursue expansions of existing rights protections in the Global Compacts, should focus on the low-hanging fruit—those protections that states already acknowledge in statute and case law.
3) Civil society actors and activists should, through advocacy and litigation, ensure the implementation of international human rights commitments as they currently exist in national law.
4) States and civil society should approve a system of regular cross-national reporting about the extent to which migrant rights and other provisions of the Global Compacts are protected across states.
Potential and limitations of the Migrant Rights Database

The potential of the Migrant Rights Database is substantial. The instrument permits a holistic, country-level evaluation of migrant rights protections across states, which may be systematically extended to new destinations and over time. These data are invaluable for evidence-based policy making, as the database creates new avenues to explore an entire suite of policy-relevant questions, including the extent to which state policy contexts influence migratory flows, the extent to which integration outcomes are tied to policy interventions, and societal responses to state efforts to extend or contract migrants’ rights. The data support comparisons with reference to other states, but also with reference to the international baseline of migrant rights protections. The instrument also permits analysis of within-country variation across the major categories of rights coded in the database.

This research also works to fulfill Sustainable Development Goal 10.7—to facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies—and responds to calls for the collection of better cross-national data. In 2012, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights set standards for the measurement and evaluation of human rights in its core publication, Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation. This document acknowledges the ways in which the quantifiable measurement of human rights protections can help in assessing some qualitative aspects of human rights enjoyment more objectively and comprehensively. The initial coding of the Migrant Rights Database represents an affirmative step toward this standard.

A principal limitation of the Migrant Rights Database is that it is exclusively focused on de jure protections of migrant rights in the statute and case law of different states, and thus does not account for de facto implementation of the standards under consideration. However, without a grasp of what standards are in place, the international community cannot undertake examinations of implementation. Thus, this research represents an essential, initial step toward a more comprehensive understanding. By establishing the state of protection in law, it opens the possibility of fresh examinations of implementation gaps where they exist. Finally, a database that covers more countries will facilitate the pursuit of these recommendations by identifying where legal baselines exist, revealing the locations of the low-hanging fruit, and providing a cross-national reference for advocates and activists worldwide.



Justin Gest

Assistant Professor, Public Policy, Schar School of Policy and Gogernment, George Mason University

Tom K. Wong

Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, San Diego

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000