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Journal ArticleDOI

Migrant Rights, Immigration Policy and Human Development

Martin Ruhs1
10 May 2010-Journal of Human Development and Capabilities (Routledge)-Vol. 11, Iss: 2, pp 259-279

AbstractThis paper explores the impacts of the rights of migrant workers (‘migrant rights’) on the human development of actual and potential migrants, their families, and other people in migrants’ countries of origin. A key feature of the paper is its consideration of how migrant rights affect both the capability to move and work in higher income countries (i.e. the access of workers in low‐income countries to labor markets of higher‐income countries) and capabilities while living and working abroad. The paper suggests that there may be a trade‐off between the number and some of the socio‐economic rights of low‐skilled migrant workers admitted to high‐income countries, and explores the implications for human development.

Summary (4 min read)

1 Introduction

  • The rights of migrant workers (―migrant rights‖) play an important role in shaping the outcomes of migration for migrants and non-migrants in sending and receiving countries.
  • Migrant rights can also influence the decisions and opportunities of individuals or households to migrate to particular countries.
  • The aim of this paper is to conceptualise and explore the potential impacts of migrant rights on the human development of actual and potential migrants, their families, and other people in migrants‘ countries of origin.
  • Much of the discussion will be conceptual but arguments are supported by empirical examples and short illustrative case studies.
  • The impacts of immigration and migrant rights on the human development of residents of migrant-receiving countries will not be considered.

2.1 Migrant rights as human rights

  • At the risk of simplification, it is useful to distinguish between two overlapping yet in many ways distinct approaches to conceptualising and discussing migrant rights.
  • Human rights derive from a ―common humanity‖ and the ―inherent dignity of each human person‖ rather than from citizenship of a particular country.
  • The legal and normative basis of this approach comprises various international human rights treaties and separate legal instruments that specifically relate to migrants (for overviews of the international human rights framework for migrants, see, for example Cholewinski 1997; Aleinikoff and Chetail 2003; and Grant 2005).
  • CRPD =Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities The UN has 192 member states.
  • The most cursory review of the rights of migrant workers around the world confirms that the majority, and especially those working in low-waged jobs, enjoy very few of the rights stipulated in international conventions.

2.2 Migrant rights as citizenship rights

  • Citizenship is a complex concept that can be conceptualised and discussed in various different ways.
  • For the purpose of this paper, it is useful to view citizenship as a legal status that links individuals to states and that is associated with certain citizenship rights and duties (i.e. a ―thin‖ conceptualisation of citizenship based on legal positivism).
  • This is reflected in the fact that the requirements and processes by which citizenship is acquired, and the rights and duties associated with citizenship status, vary significantly both across and within countries over time (for a recent review of citizenship policies in the EU countries, see Baubock et al 2006a, 2006b, 2006c).
  • Further distinctions and restrictions of rights based on the migrant‘s specific citizenship (e.g. member states of the European Union grant other EU nationals more rights than non-EU nationals) and purpose of residence (e.g. work, study, join family, asylum) are common and often contribute to highly complex immigration systems.

2.3 Human Development

  • In Sen‘s words, capability ―represents the the various combinations of functionings (beings and doings) that the person can achieve‖ (Sen 1992, p.40).
  • Theoretical discussions and empirical applications of the human development approach have identified various different dimensions of well-being and development.
  • It is important not to conflate human development with human rights.
  • The concept of ―decent work‖, which has informed the recent work of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is similar in its emphasis of the multi-dimensionality and potential trade-offs between different dimensions of labour market outcomes for individuals.

3 Numbers vs rights: Towards a typology of policy regimes for low-skilled immigration

  • This section discusses, at a conceptual and empirical level, the relationship between the number, selection and rights of migrants in high-income countries.
  • Countries that offer relatively few rights to highly skilled migrants can be expected to receive relatively small numbers of migrants and vice versa.
  • Following the failure of the Green Card system to attract significant numbers of highly skilled migrants, Germany passed a new immigration law in 2004 that provides for unlimited residence permits for highly qualified migrants and their families.
  • Certain employment rights for workers – such as the right to minimum wage, work-related benefits and health and safety standards – increase labour costs for employers, thus generating a numbers–rights trade-off.
  • Limiting lowskilled migrants‘ length of stay and restricting their right to free choice of employment can thus be important to the objective of maximizing the overall economic benefits of immigration for existing residents while protecting lowest-paid residents, and this may be reflected in highincome countries‘ labour immigration policies.

3.2 Empirical examples of different policy regimes for regulating low-skilled labour

  • There are numerous empirical examples that support the hypothesis of a trade-off between the number and rights of low-skilled migrant workers in high-income countries.
  • The discussion is based on current and past experiences and policies in different countries.
  • The majority of migrants in GCC countries are employed in medium and low-skilled jobs, especially in the private sector where, in some countries, very few citizens are employed.
  • Unions and their 14 See accessed on 8 December 2008 15 See accessed on 8 December 2008 25 economic interests appear to have been a major factor in determining Sweden‘s past policy of relatively low numbers but comprehensive rights for migrant workers. ).
  • Temporary migration programmes increase the number of migrants working legally abroad but at the same time restrict the rights of migrant workers in various different ways.

4 The effects of migrant rights on human development

  • (i) the capability to move and take up employment abroad; and (ii) capabilities while living and working abroad, also known as The analysis distinguishes between.
  • I argue that there can be a tension between these two capabilities and that this creates an important question for normative analysis and public debate.

4.1 The capability to move and work abroad

  • Compared to international trade and capital flows, the scale of international migration remains relatively limited in the global economy.
  • In 2005, the ratios of exports and outward FDI to world GPD were 28 percent (IMF) and 24 percent , respectively.
  • If migrants transfer some of their benefits back to their home countries—in the form of remittances, investment, and/or knowledge transfers— migrant-sending countries may reap a significant share of these global income gains from migration.
  • The US, Western Europe and the GCC countries are the main sources of remittances but the relative share of each varies across destinations (of remittances).

4.2 Capabilities while living and working abroad

  • Migrant rights obviously have an important impact on migrants‘ human development while living and working abroad.
  • Some economists argue that more rights and institutions make the labour market less flexible and thus, for example, increase the likelihood of unemployment.
  • Some employers may offer illegally resident migrants lower wages and inferior employment conditions, either because they take advantage of migrant‘s deportability and/or simply to account for the increased risk associated with employing migrants without legal residence rights.
  • Most of the existing economic literature thus confirms the expectation that immigration status (and associated rights) can be a significant determinant of migrants‘ labour market outcomes and that illegality and/or temporary residence status can have a significant adverse impact on earnings when compared to permanent resident status and/or citizenship.
  • 35 It is tempting to further conclude that, because of the beneficial impacts on migrant‘s human development, expanding rights will also promote the human development of those ―left-behind‖ (family members and/or others) in migrants‘ countries of origin.

4.3 How to balance numbers and rights to promote human development?

  • The analysis has shown that there can be a tension between the positive effects of migrant rights on human development on migrants while living and working abroad, and the negative effects that some socio-economic rights may have on the capability of workers in low-income countries to access labour markets of higher-income countries.
  • There is no single answer to the question whether and under what circumstance it is justifiable to restrict specific socio-economic rights of individuals.
  • Large numbers of migrant workers are employed in countries that severely restrict migrants‘ rights, suggesting that many workers are willing to tolerate, at least temporarily, a trade-off between higher wages and fewer rights (also see Abella 2008).
  • Migrants‘ intentions (e.g. temporary or permanent stay abroad) and their ―frame of reference‖ are likely to be important determinants of 37 the choices they make at particular points in time.
  • Sending countries do not always insist on equality of rights in order not to reduce the access of its nationals to labour markets abroad.

5 Conclusion

  • The rights of migrant workers play an important yet under-researched role in shaping the effects of migration on the human development of migrants, their families and of those ―left-behind‖ in migrants‘ countries of origin.
  • As discussed in this paper, migrant rights can also have an impact on low-skilled workers‘ capability to legally move and work abroad.
  • This trade off arises from the fiscal and labour market effects of low-skilled immigration, the large supply of workers in lowincome countries seeking access to low-skilled jobs in high-income countries, and from the downward sloping demand curve for labour with regard to employment rights that create costs for employers.
  • Most people would agree that the restrictions of rights that the authors currently observe in the GCC states would be unacceptable in liberal democracies.
  • If the authors take a people-centred approach that emphasises agency and choice, the debate about TMPs must take account of the perspectives of migrants and, perhaps to a lesser extent, also their countries of origin.

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Munich Personal RePEc Archive
Migrant rights, immigration policy and
human development
Ruhs, Martin
ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the
University of Oxford
1 June 2009
Online at
MPRA Paper No. 19206, posted 12 Dec 2009 14:57 UTC

Human Development
Research Paper
Migrant Rights,
Immigration Policy and
Human Development
Martin Ruhs

United Nations Development Programme
Human Development Reports
Research Paper
April 2009
Human Development
Research Paper
Migrant Rights,
Immigration Policy and
Human Development
Martin Ruhs

United Nations Development Programme
Human Development Reports
Research Paper 2009/23
June 2009
Migrant rights, immigration policy
and human development
Martin Ruhs*
*For their helpful comments, I am grateful to Jeni Klugman, Francisco Rodriguez and the HDR writing
team, Clare Fox, David Keen, Michael Keith and Phil Martin. All errors and views expressed in this paper
are my own responsibility. I am working on a book manuscript that further develops the analysis and
arguments in this paper.
Martin Ruhs is Senior Researcher for the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the
University of Oxford. E-mail:
Comments should be addressed by email to the author(s).

This paper explores the potential impacts of the rights of migrant workers (“migrant rights”) on
the human development of actual and potential migrants, their families, and other people in
migrants’ countries of origin. A key feature of the paper is its consideration of how migrant
rights affect both the capability to move and work in higher income countries (i.e. the access of
workers in low-income countries to labour markets of higher-income countries) and capabilities
while living and working abroad. The paper suggests that there may be a trade-off between the
number and some of the rights of low-skilled migrants admitted to high-income countries and
explores the implications for human development.
Keywords: Migrant rights, immigration policy, human development, global labor markets.
The Human Development Research Paper (HDRP) Series is a medium for sharing recent
research commissioned to inform the global Human Development Report, which is published
annually, and further research in the field of human development. The HDRP Series is a quick-
disseminating, informal publication whose titles could subsequently be revised for publication as
articles in professional journals or chapters in books. The authors include leading academics and
practitioners from around the world, as well as UNDP researchers. The findings, interpretations
and conclusions are strictly those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of
UNDP or United Nations Member States. Moreover, the data may not be consistent with that
presented in Human Development Reports.

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This paper explores the potential impacts of the rights of migrant workers ( “ migrant rights ” ) on the human development of actual and potential migrants, their families, and other people in migrants ’ countries of origin. A key feature of the paper is its consideration of how migrant rights affect both the capability to move and work in higher income countries ( i. e. the access of workers in low-income countries to labour markets of higher-income countries ) and capabilities while living and working abroad. The paper suggests that there may be a trade-off between the number and some of the rights of low-skilled migrants admitted to high-income countries and explores the implications for human development.