Values and Vulnerabilities: The Ethics of Research with Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Edited by Karen Block, Elisha Riggs and Nick Haslam

Forced migration is a global issue.
About 34 million of the world's inhabitants were identified in 2010 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as either refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers or stateless people. Systematic inquiries are urgently needed to understand and improve the circumstances in which these people live, and to guide national and international policies and programs.
However, there are many ethical complications in conducting research with uprooted people, who have often been exposed to persecution and marginalisation in conflict situations, refugee camps, immigration detention settings, and following resettlement. This book brings together for the first time key scholars across a range of disciplines including anthropology, bioethics, public health, criminology, psychology, socio-linguistics, philosophy, psychiatry, social policy and social work to discuss the ethical dimensions, challenges and tensions of such research.
It encompasses the theoretical, conceptual, practical, and applied aspects of research ethics, while integrating different disciplinary perspectives. It is intended as a resource not only for researchers, students and practitioners but also for those conducting cross-cultural research more broadly. Many of its arguments, examples and concerns are pertinent to research with other vulnerable or marginalised populations.

About the Author

The Editors

Karen Block is a research fellow in the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program, McCaughey VicHealth Centre, Melbourne School of Population Health, University of Melbourne. Karen has a background spanning clinical sciences, history, languages and the sociology of health with an interest in research methodologies and ethics. Her research is focused on understanding the social determinants of health and wellbeing for refugee-background young people in the settlement context. Recent publication topics include work on ethical strategies for engaging refugee youth in research (Journal of Refugee Studies) and the social and learning environment in schools (Health Education & Behavior).
Elisha Riggs is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute. With a background in public health and health promotion, she completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne. She has considerable research experience in refugee and migrant child health inequalities, social determinants of health, ethics, partnerships, mixed methods intervention implementation and evaluation. Her research utilises participatory and culturally competent methodologies in partnership with culturally diverse communities. She has published on topics including refugee access and engagement with health services (BMC Health Services Research, Global Health Promotion), cultural competence in public health research (Encyclopaedia of Public Health) and ethical considerations in qualitative research (Monash Bioethics Review).
Nick Haslam is Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne. He received his PhD in social and clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and then taught for several years at the New School for Social Research. His research has addressed social perception, dehumanisation, prejudice, and psychiatric classification. His six previous books include the title Introduction to Personality and Intelligence and Yearning to Breathe Free: Seeking Asylum in Australia (with Dean Lusher). His meta-analytic research on refugee mental health with Matt Porter was been published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.

About the Editors

Edited by Karen Block, Elisha Riggs and Nick Haslam


Book Review

by KATE CODDINGTON Durham University

Published: IMR: International Migration Review (September 2014)

Even as the global population of refugees and asylum seekers has grown in recent decades, so too has the level of academic engagement with these populations. The eleven chapters of Values and Vulnerabilities: The Ethics of Research with Refugees and Asylum Seekers provide a multidisciplinary glimpse into the ethical complications of research involving refugees and asylum seekers, highlighting both general ethical principles and the practical decisions that researchers make. Karen Block, Elisha Riggs, and Nick Haslam have assembled a group of papers that consider research ethics, including the paradoxes of vulnerability, issues of power and representation, and debates over credibility and bias in the blurred spaces between academic research and advocacy work. These debates have important theoretical and political implications because refugee and asylum seeker research takes place in highly politicized national contexts and has important ramifications for policy development and advocacy strategies. While the volume’s theoretical pieces raise important issues for academics, its highlights include examples of projects that evolved to better meet the needs of research participants through ethical reflection and collaborative research practices. The volume includes contributions from psychologists, mental-health practitioners, diverse social scientists, and interdisciplinary scholars, demonstrating the degree to which refugee and asylum seeker research crosses disciplinary boundaries. Nearly all authors are Australian, which lends a particular national focus to chapters addressing research guidelines and research ethics committees, yet the politicized context in which these authors write will be familiar to readers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, where forced migration has similar visibility. With its critical engagement of the academic research process, this book will be of interest to a primarily academic audience, including scholars of international migration, forced migration, and human-rights law and especially those navigating the research approval process in a university setting. Chapters are concise and succinctly written and would be useful for students of any of the above fields, particularly in courses about research design and methodology.

Woven throughout many contributions in this volume is an expansive and important critique of the implicit assumptions about refugees within the research process. What work, they ask, do ideas that equate refugee status with vulnerability and victimhood do? Sandy Gifford describes the conflicting values about refugees held by ethics committees, researchers, and people with refugee experience, noting that "refugeeness” is often assumed to be a permanent category of vulnerability rather than a temporary experience. Hariz Halilovich echoes this observation, adding that recognition of the power relations within research projects does not mean treating refugees as powerless victims. Christopher McDowell argues that vulnerability stems, in part, from an assumption that all forced migration can be read through a paradigm of refugees in camps. Combating these ideas about refugees as "generic” victims, Jeanette Lawrence et al. write, involves explicit recognition and respect within research projects. Yet, refugees are not always portrayed as victims, Marinella Marmo adds, and the tensions between perceiving refugees as both "victims” and "offenders” colors the research process. Together, these pieces offer important corrections to research frameworks that overemphasize powerlessness, victimhood, and vulnerability of refugees and asylum seekers and obscure the voice and agency of research participants in the process.             The academic research process features prominently in several pieces in this collection. Lynn Gillam, Gifford, and Lawrence et al. evaluate the utility of formal ethical guidelines provided by ethics committees or research institutions. Pieces by Deborah Zion as well as Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei raise questions about ethics and academic publishing, while Marmo and Louise Newman discuss the relationship between ethical research and academic standards. Scholars will also find useful mention of specific research methods throughout the volume, including issues about informed consent (Gillam’s and McDowell’s chapters); the benefits of academic research for participants (Pittaway and Barolomei’s, Zion’s, and Gillam’s chapters); ethical issues surrounding incarcerated research participants (McDowell’s, Zion’s, and Newman’s chapters); and the relationship between research and working for social justice (Mammad Aidani’s and Halilovich’s chapters).

Two chapters stand out for their detailed descriptions of how the authors applied their theoretical conclusions in the field. Halilovich relates how he scrapped plans for individual interviews with research participants when he learned of their isolation, using the research process as an opportunity to host gatherings of refugee youth and women. This change resulted in the empowerment of research participants and a fuller understanding of what Halilovich cites as the "inherently political” nature of all research projects (p. 132). Pittaway and Bartolomei describe a research method they developed in response to a host of problems refugees articulated about conventional academic research, including breaches of confidentiality, lack of beneficial results, and uncertainty about control over data collected. Their method involves human-rights training for refugee participants, story circles to identify community problems, and storyboarding to help create proposals for further research and action. Communities retain control over research data and authorize all findings, a research method that, while not quick and easy, recognizes participants’ knowledge and experiences. Each of these examples shows how researchers in the field incorporated theoretical and ethical debates into their evolving methodological toolboxes and would be especially useful in the classroom.

The limitations to Values and Vulnerabilities suggest the extent to which the ethics of research about refugees and asylum seekers demands further study. The volume would benefit from an engagement with non-Australian national contexts, as well as discussion related to ethics and funding bodies. The authors’ preoccupation with research ethics committees in the Australian university system prompts the question: how does framing research ethics committees as a "given” shape the possibilities for research? Advocates, independent researchers, and others outside the university system face similar ethical dilemmas, and research ethics committees are, as several authors note, often inadequately prepared to address the complexities of such research. Getting "outside” the research ethics committee framework could allow for more expansive critique and re-design of research practices to the benefit of academic and non-academic researchers alike. Nevertheless, these critiques gesture to the volume’s overall strength: to leave one’s audience demanding more is a sign of the importance, timeliness, and practical applicability of these collected pieces. 

Table of Contents

  • 1. Ethics in Research With Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Processes, Power and Politics - Karen Block, Elisha Riggs, and Nick Haslam
  • Part 1: Ethical Frameworks and Key Concepts
  • 2. Ethical Considerations in Refugee Research: What Guidance Do Formal Research Ethics Documents Offer?- Lynn Gillam
  • 3. To Respect or Protect? Whose Values Shape the Ethics of Refugee Research? - Sandy Gifford
  • 4. Researching Displacement(s) - Christopher McDowell
  • 5. The Ethical Implications of the Researcher's Dominant Position in Cross-Cultural Refugee Research - Marinella Marmo
  • Part 2: Methodological Approaches to Ethical Research
  • 6. The Role of Respect in Research Interactions With Refugee Children and Young People - Jeanette A. Lawrence, Ida Kaplan, and Colleen McFarlane
  • 7. Ethical Approaches in Research With Refugees and Asylum Seekers Using Participatory Action Research - Hariz Halilovich
  • 8. Doing Ethical Research: 'Whose Problem Is It Anyway?' - Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei
  • Part 3: Advocacy and Politics - Considering the Ramifications of Research
  • 9. Researching Immigration Detention: Documenting Damage and Ethical Dilemmas - Louise Newman
  • 10. On Secrets and Lies: Dangerous Information, Stigma and Asylum Seeker Research - Deborah Zion
  • 11. Face to Face: Ethics and Responsibility - Mammad Aidani