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The case for a global migrant rights database

Not all databases are boring. Please read on!

For the past few years I have been trying – without success – to raise money to create a ‘global migrant rights database’ with indicators of the legal rights that different groups of migrants are afforded by the laws and regulations of different countries. Such a database could lead to a step-change in the analysis and protection of migrants’ rights around world.

While there has been a rapidly growing research literature and policy interest in measuring human rights (see, for example, the Freedom in the World Reports by Freedom House, there is currently no comprehensive global index of the rights of migrants.

In my book The Price of Rights I constructed an index of the legal rights of migrant workers in 46 high- and middle-income countries. While this is the most comprehensive database of migrant workers’ rights created to date, key limitations of my analysis include the exclusive focus on ‘rights in law’ (rather than ‘rights in practice’)’; the emphasis on the rights of migrant workers only (i.e. excluding other groups such as family migrants, students, asylum seekers and refugees, irregular migrants etc.); and the use of Oxford-based research assistants rather than country experts in constructing the indicators for rights in different countries. My dataset is also limited to two years only (2008 and 2009).

Why do we need it?

The benefits are clear. A global migrant rights database would help researchers, policy-makers and activists. It could provide new and highly transparent data, indicators and analysis to provide a better picture and monitoring of the rights of migrants around the world. The new indicators would enable social science researchers from a range of different disciplines to explore questions and conduct innovative analysis about the variation, determinants and effects of migrant rights over time.

It would enable policy-makers to critically assess their policies towards migrants in light of international experiences and assess the effectiveness of different policy interventions. A global migrant rights index would also empower stakeholders and advocacy groups to more effectively campaign on migration and migrant rights issues based on a rigorous and widely respected evidence base.

So why does it not yet exist? A key challenge is that, to be useful, a global migrant rights database needs to be created in a rigorous and credible way – which means it will require significant resources. We are essentially talking about trying to provide a “global public good”.

How could it be done?

The rights of migrants vary by their immigration status (e.g. workers, family, student, asylum seeker, irregular) and, among workers, by skill levels. A new global migrant rights index would therefore have to distinguish between different types of rights (e.g. civil and political, economic and social, residency rights, family reunion rights) for different types of migrants. The rights indicators could be benchmarked against existing human rights treaties including the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families.

The indicators could be conceptualised and designed by a group of experts including migrant rights specialists and measurement experts. The analysis could then be implemented by a group of country experts. If the information were collected every year, it would be possible to build up a longitudinal database of indicators of rights protections/restrictions across countries, different groups of migrants and over time.

In addition to facilitating comprehensive monitoring, this database would allow analysis of the patterns, determinants and effects of restrictions of migrant rights. A range of questions could be analysed, for example:

  • Patterns, variations and trends: how do rights restrictions vary across different rights, groups of migrants and countries? Which rights are most commonly restricted? How do rights restrictions evolve over time?
  • Determinants: What are the drivers of restrictions of the rights of migrant workers? How are rights restrictions related to labour markets, welfare states and admission policies?
  • Impacts: What are the effects of restricting the rights of migrants on the migrants themselves, migrant-receiving countries and migrant-sending countries?

Crucially, the indicators would need to be presented in a way that makes them transparent and accessible to anybody for use and analysis. For example, the different migrant rights indicators could be presented on a dedicated website where people can download and interact with the data to create their own indices based on their own preferred indicators ( see, for example, the interactive presentation of the UNDP’s Human Development Indicators ).

Who will do it? And who will fund it?

In theory, standard-setting organisations such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) should have a great interest in promoting the development of such a database. In practice, the work of UN and other international organisations is often constrained by the interests of their member states.

Immigration and the rights of migrants are among the most salient and controversial public policy issues in many countries. Consequently, the development of any index that could be used to rank countries according to their policies toward migration and migrants is likely to be opposed by members states who are concerned that their position in the final ranking may not look ‘favourable’ from a domestic political perspective (some governments will not want to be seen to be ‘too open and generous’ towards migrants, while others may not want to be seen much more restrictive than other comparable countries).

But things might be changing. In late 2012, I proposed the creation of a global migrant rights database at a migration workshop organised by KNOMAD, a new research programme on migration and development overseen by the World Bank. I was delighted to see in early 2013 that KNOMAD has apparently decided (according to its website) to go ahead with this project.

KNOMAD has not yet communicated any details about how this will done, and it remains to be seen how rigorous and credible the new database will be. Nevertheless, the fact that a major international organisation has committed to systematically measuring and analysing migrant rights around the world is definitely an encouraging step forward.