Working paper

Migrant Rights Database


Justin Gest and Tom K. Wong


Policy makers and activists are pursuing a global standard for migration governance and the protection of migrant rights. However, there remains 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. The Migrant Rights Database applies a novel instrument to create an objective, cross-national accounting of the laws protecting migrant rights enshrined in national legal frameworks. The database permits aggregation, disaggregation, and an objective system of benchmarking—all contained in an efficient coding instrument that can be applied cross-nationally and over time. In this study, we apply the database’s 65 binary indicators to five principal destination states—Germany, Mexico, the Russian Federation, South Africa, and Turkey. The results validate the design of the questionnaire and reveal variation within and across the selected countries—the principal goals of the pilot study. The analysis of these results may be deepened and will hold more weight once they can be contextualized for a broader range of destination countries.

In aggregate terms, South Africa and Mexico demonstrate the most complete protection of migrant rights. 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. Russia and Turkey demonstrate the most incomplete protection of migrant rights. However, disaggregating the scores by category shows that Turkey features the most complete protection of migrant rights related to labor (access to labor market)—the most substantial category of indicators. The greatest variation appears in categories related to the rights of legal personhood, vulnerable migrants, family, expulsion, asylum, and non-refoulement.

The pilot database demonstrates its use beyond such comparative accounting. It is a means of revealing where derogation takes place. For example, although they are the pilot countries that most completely enshrine international protections in their national laws, South Africa and Mexico remain behind the international baseline in several dimensions. Further, the results suggest the potential of the data to reveal “low-hanging fruit” for negotiation of the Global Compacts—the areas in which there is a near international consensus on the protection of migrant rights. From the initial coding, promising areas of law include rights associated with nationality; freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief; freedom of opinion and expression; access to the labor market; and equal protection.