Ethics of Studying Forced Migration: Critical Questions to Consider

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Lukuaika: 6 min.

Authors: Johanna Leinonen, Eveliina Lyytinen, Marja Tiilikainen, Madgalena Kmak

As the 2010s drew to a close, the number of forced migrants – including refugees, asylum seekers, and other displaced people – had grown exponentially. At the same time, the public’s and scholars’ interest in issues associated with forced migration also peaked. While critical scholarship on these issues is needed, it is paramount for researchers of forced migration to carefully consider the increasingly complex ethical questions related to the field. To encourage discussions on ethical concerns, we are proposing a list of questions that researchers can utilize when planning and conducting a project on forced migration.

The ethical challenges of forced migration research relate, for example, to the precarious legal statuses and vulnerable positions of many forced migrants, the power relations embedded in the research context, and the politicization of migration issues in society at large. Therefore, conducting research with forced migrants necessitates a continuous critical consideration of research ethics.

The questions below are meant to provide tools for thinking about the ethical aspects of research from its inception to the dissemination of research results.[1] It is also important to determine whether you need to submit your project to a review by an ethics board.

 Project planning:

  • Who defined your research problem? What motivated you to conduct this research?
  • For whom is your study worthy and relevant, and who says so?
  • How do you plan your project so that it promotes the maximum benefits for the participants? Can the people who are the focus of your study be involved in different stages of the project? How will they be compensated for their time and efforts?
  • What is the lifespan of the research materials that you will collect? Will they be archived? Consider making a long-term plan for your research data, and find out if you need to draw up a data protection impact assessment.

Data collection:

  • How do you obtain a genuinely voluntary and informed consent in the context of forced migration? How do you take into account the institutional context (e.g. forced migrants’ possible dependence on service providers who act as gatekeepers), cultural/linguistic differences, and psychosocial factors?
  • Have you familiarized yourself with data security and privacy issues? If you work with interpreters, research assistants, or other collaborators, have they been made aware of confidentiality and privacy issues?
  • How do you make sure that the safety, dignity, and well-being of the research participants are secured throughout the data collection? If you work with particularly vulnerable groups, such as undocumented migrants, how do you make sure that your research does not pose risks for them?
  • Who are you able to reach through your data collection and whose perspectives are left out, and why?
  • Who has access to your data? Who has the ownership and copyright to your data throughout the project?
  • What do you consider as research data? What do you use as data and what not, for example, in activist research or when you form personal relationships with participants?
  • What kinds of resources do you have available if you encounter challenging situations during data collection/ if you conduct research with people with difficult or traumatic experiences? Please also consider the impact of researching difficult topics on your collaborators.
  • How do you respond if your research participants ask for your help during the data collection (e.g. in their asylum/family reunification processes)? Is it possible for you to “give back” to the communities you study, for example, through volunteering?

Knowledge production:

  • Who is “talking” in your research and on whose behalf? Who is the focus of your research? Whose perspectives are left out, and why?
  • Who are the main beneficiaries of your study? While the power relationship between researchers and participants is difficult to overcome, how do you plan to make sure that your research participants benefit from your study?
  • Will your research participants be able to influence how they are represented in your research findings?
  • How will you disseminate your research results? What publication venues are you utilizing? What languages are you going to use in your publications? How accessible will your research results be?
  • What knowledge will the academic community gain from your study?

Research outcomes:

  • What are some likely positive/negative outcomes of your study?
  • Are you able to challenge repressive social structures through your research, and if so, how? If not, how do you substantiate the need for your research?
  • Is there a risk of co-option of research results for goals that may be adverse for the research participants? How do you make sure that your research does not confirm existing hierarchies?
  • How can negative outcomes be eliminated?
  • To whom is the researcher accountable?
  • How do you “exit the field” ethically?

Why Should You Ask These Questions?

Ethics reviews by universities’ and research institutions’ ethics boards are becoming the norm for research projects regarding forced migrants and displaced persons. Yet, ethical issues in forced migration research are rather specific, and the generic rules such as the Guidelines of the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity (TENK) and the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity may be insufficient, as they often focus on methodology rather than far-reaching ethical aspects of the research. It should be noted that the consideration of the questions outlined above can also benefit researchers working with other potentially vulnerable groups.

When studying forced migration, the relationship between the researcher and the research participant is inherently unequal, and everyday ethical dilemmas related to this relationship usually go unaddressed in the review process. The International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) addresses these concerns in their Code of Ethics (2019), for example, by stating that “(f)orced migration scholarship often disproportionately benefits those who are least affected by displacement” by advancing the researcher’s career, while the benefits for the research participants are less clear.

Towards Ethics of Care

Ethics reviews only provide the baseline for doing research; they do not guarantee an ethical conduct of research. As Ellis (2017) notes, ethics boards usually give little guidance in situational and relational ethics – in other words, in the unanticipated ethical dilemmas or questions faced or the complex interpersonal relations formed during the research process.

In the worst-case scenario, the successful ethics review process is considered to be a procedure after which the researcher is “free” to conduct the project without further ethical reflection or accountability.

Therefore, researchers must continuously critically reflect on their positionality in research and recognize the ingrained power relations and vulnerabilities, as well as the agency of research participants in knowledge production. Moreover, researchers of forced migration have a responsibility to speak out about the structural inequalities they uncover. This is all the more crucial in the current politicized research context, where nation-states seem to prioritize controlling movements of forced migrants, rather than ensuring the respect of human rights.

Migration scholars ought to move towards ethics of care in their research (Ellis 2017). This concept refers to researchers’ moral commitment and willingness to act with or on behalf of their research participants. Researchers’ professional and moral commitment to the research participants and studied phenomena should be long-lasting and not related only to the data collection phase. Moreover, researchers should acknowledge the interdependency of the researcher and the research participant.

In short, research ethics should not be just a hurdle to pass before starting a project but an ongoing, reflective process that spans the whole the project, sometimes even beyond.

This text is based on the online symposium “The Ethics of Studying Forced Mobilities”, on October 7-8, 2020, organized by the University of Oulu, University of Helsinki/Åbo Akademi University, and the Migration Institute of Finland. The authors were especially inspired by the keynote speeches given by Associate Professor Cristina Clark-Kazak (University of Ottawa): “The Ethics of Studying Forced Mobilities: Dilemmas, Lessons Learned and Future Directions” and Professor Anna Lundberg (Linköping University): “The Ethics of Activist Research in Times of Repressive Migration Politics: A Presentation of the Cross-border Solidarity Initiative the Asylum Commission”.  

[1] Please also consult the IASFM’s Code of Ethics. This list was inspired by Professor Anna Lundberg’s recommendations of questions to ask before starting a project on forced migration.

Further readings:

Chase, Elaine, Laura Otto, Milena Belloni, Annika Lems & Ulrika Wernesjö (2020). Methodological Innovations, Reflections and Dilemmas: The Hidden Sides of Research with Migrant Young People Classified as Unaccompanied Minors. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 46 (2), 457–473.

Clark-Kazak, Christina (2017). Ethical Considerations: Research with People in Situations of Forced Migration. Refuge, 33 (2), 11–17.

Düvell, Franck, Anna Triandafyllidou & Bastian Vollmer (2010). Ethical Issues in Irregular Migration Research in Europe. Population, Space and Place, 16 (3), 227–239.

Ellis, Carolyn (2017) Compassionate Research: Interviewing and Storytelling from a Relational Ethics of Care. Ivor Goodson, Ari Antikainen, Pat Sikes & Molly Andrews (eds.), The Routledge International Handbook on Narrative and Life History. London & New York: Routledge, 431–445.

Hopkins, Peter (2008). Ethical Issues in Research with Unaccompanied Asylum-seeking Children. Children’s Geographies, 6 (1), 37–48.

Hugman, Richard, Eileen Pittaway & Linda Bartolomei (2011). When “Do No Harm” Is Not Enough: The Ethics of Research with Refugees and Other Vulnerable Groups. The British Journal of Social Work, 41 (7), 1271–1287.

Hugman, Richard, Linda Bartolomei & Eileen Pittaway (2011). Human Agency and the Meaning of Informed Consent: Reflections on Research with Refugees. Journal of Refugee Studies, 24 (4), 655–671.

Kaukko, Mervi, Riikka Korkiamäki & Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto (2019). Normatiivisesta etiikasta elettyyn kohtaamiseen – tutkimuksellista hengailua yksin tulleiden maahanmuuttajanuorten kanssa. Niina Rutanen & Kaisa Vehkalahti (toim.), Tutkimuseettisestä sääntelystä elettyyn kohtaamiseen. Lasten ja nuorten tutkimuksen etiikka II. Helsinki: Nuorisotutkimusseura.

Krause, Ulrike (2017). Researching Forced Migration: Critical Reflections on Research Ethics during Fieldwork. Working Paper Series, No. 123, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

Mackenzie, Catriona, Christopher McDowell & Eileen Pittaway (2007). Beyond “Do No Harm”: The Challenge of Constructing Ethical Relationships in Refugee Research. Journal of Refugee Studies, 20 (2), 299–319.

Vervliet, Marianne, Cécile Rousseau, Eric Broekaert & Ilse Derluyn (2015). Multilayered Ethics in Research Involving Unaccompanied Refugee Minors. Journal of Refugee Studies, 28 (4), 468–485.