Ethical research with refugees and asylum seekers – it’s about processes, power and politics…

On a rainy September evening, in the week following the Australian federal election, colleagues and I from the University of Melbourne group Researchers for Asylum Seekers (RAS ) convened a panel discussion to launch our edited book Values and Vulnerabilities: The Ethics of Research with Refugees and Asylum Seekers. The ensuing lively discussion, between approximately 40 audience members and the panel – comprising four of the book’s contributing authors, fairly quickly turned to politics. Given the timing of the event, and the prominence of debates concerning asylum seekers within the election campaign, this was perhaps hardly surprising. What may not be immediately obvious though is the close link between research ethics and politics and this is what I would like to discuss here.

Book launch KB

Opening the book launch

Ethical challenges

We can think of research ethics as being underscored by core principles, which include non-maleficence (do no harm!); beneficence (do good!); respect for autonomy; and promotion of justice. Clearly, research with refugees and asylum seekers, often rendered particularly vulnerable both to harms and threats to their autonomy by the circumstances in which they find themselves, raises ethical challenges for researchers. Consequently, university-based ethics committees are likely to pay very close attention to any research that is proposed. Potential harms must be avoided or at least minimised and balanced against likely benefits of the research. Researchers must also attempt to make sure that consent to participate is truly ‘informed’. Key considerations include language differences; potential lack of experience or understanding of research on the part of participants; and misconceptions that participants may have about their right to refuse without compromising their positions. Researchers and ethics committees may also be concerned that refugee research participants could overestimate the extent of the benefits to be obtained through participation.

Research ethics committees typically pay less attention to promotion of social justice, although clearly, –  as a general rule – research should aim to reduce rather than increase social inequalities and inequities. Yet researchers undertaking research with refugees and asylum seekers are frequently driven primarily by a commitment to social justice and, in the politically charged environment in which much refugee research takes place, need to consider the political ramifications of their endeavours. For researchers to behave in an ethical way in such an environment, they need to think beyond the way in which their research is conducted and consider also the ways in which their research might be interpreted or used.

Let’s consider here just some of the issues that might arise:

Gaining access to research participants

Several of the authors who contributed chapters to the book discussed the ethical complications inherent in conducting research with asylum seekers within the Australian detention system. While documenting the suffering caused by this system is undoubtedly extremely important, such research is fraught with ethical complications. Are detainees, stripped of so many rights by their situation, really likely to understand that that they have the right to refuse to participate in research? How can researchers ensure that participants don’t mistakenly believe that somehow researchers – with their relatively powerful and privileged positions –   can help them with their asylum claims? What if gaining access to participants requires cooperation with oppressive authorities, thereby unintentionally legitimising the detention system that most refugee researchers almost certainly oppose?

The potential for research findings to be misused

Another issue raised by the panel was the potential for research findings to be stigmatising. If research shows that Australia’s detention system damages the mental health of detainees or drives them to commit desperate measures involving self-harm or violent protest, many would respond with compassion. Others however, might use such evidence to argue that acceptance of these asylum seekers and refugees imposes unwarranted risks and costs to Australian society.

The challenge of combining research with advocacy

For research to be trustworthy (and ethical!) it must be conducted with rigour and as much objectivity as possible. This can raise some thorny questions concerning the nexus between research and advocacy, and is discussed in the introduction to the book and touched on throughout. While those engaged in refugee research are invariably committed to improving the plight of those they study, others  have criticised so-called “advocacy research” which, they claim, often lacks appropriate rigour.

It is clear that we need to think through many issues and questions before, during, and after we conduct research involving potentially vulnerable participants. Perhaps an even greater concern for those participating in our panel discussion though, was how we can conduct research that has a positive influence on government policy in this area. If researchers have already shown that harsh detention policies cause significant harm, and have produced statistics showing that the number of people seeking asylum  in Australia is far smaller than in many parts of the world – then clearly we need new research questions. Should we instead be studying the most effective ways to influence public opinion? On the other hand, perhaps we have reached the limits of what research alone can hope to achieve…

Book launch editors (2)

Book editors – Nick Haslam, Karen Block, Elisha Riggs

For further information on the book Values and Vulnerabilities: The Ethics of Research with Refugees and Asylum Seekers see

Written by Dr Karen Block
Research Fellow, Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program
The University of Melbourne


Highlights from a rookie researcher’s first conference.

A few weeks ago I attended the conference Progress 2013 ( The first of its kind in Australia, it brought together progressive left thinkers with not-for profit organizations, unions, private industry and experts in the health and environment sector. Its aim was to talk about the issues that will define Australia’s not-for profits and social movements for the years to come. As a recent graduate, this was my first ever conference and a chance to understand how people from all over the workforce come together to share skills, nut out ideas and most importantly – network. This blog post will cover some of the major highlights from the conference and touch on some of the lessons I learnt, from the perspective of a budding young researcher.


Highlight no 1.
To begin, one of the major highlights for me was listening to rock star academic and expert on the social determinants of health, Richard Wilkinson (, speak about the importance of understanding how income inequality affects health and wellbeing. Wilkinson, author of ‘The Spirit level’ and co-founder of The Equality Trust (, researches the problems of inequality in society and produces evidence-based arguments to support social movements for change. In particular, Wilkinson drew attention to the problem that health and wellbeing in high and middle income countries is worse for all when the gap between the rich and poor is greater. Data was collated to demonstrate that even in high income countries as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population levels of health and wellbeing are influenced by income inequality. Therefore, the average wellbeing of societies is not dependent on gross national income and the rhetoric of economic growth but rather the relation between each other within society itself. This trend also occurs in child health and wellbeing, mental health, drug abuse and obesity – proving the tangible effect that inequality has in society. Some factors Wilkinson attributed as the drivers of negative health in unequal societies include status anxiety, stress, mistrust and dominance caused by a competitive consumer based economy. Wilkinson therefore advocated for a more inclusive society where value is placed on the way we relate to one another and where possible to harness positive social relations, such as friendship. Although these insights seem somewhat intuitive, I was taken aback by how relevant it is to continue to produce evidence that highlights this problem. When considering health and wellbeing, Wilkinson makes us think about the less visible effects of how we relate to one another and re-establishes the importance of family, friendship and positive social interaction to maintaining a sustainable quality of life.


Highlight no 2.

Another highlight was the talk given by Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications expert and researcher who authored the book ‘Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy’. Her work looks at how people understand issues, such as the economy or climate change, through the words used to narrate them. Without getting too bogged down in detail, the gist of her research suggests that you can reliably persuade or change a person’s thinking about an issue depending on the words used to describe it. For example, immigration. A study was conducted to measure how people responded to immigrants depending on whether they were framed as either a burden or a resource. The findings showed that when immigrants were talked about in a positive framing, by expressing what they bring to society and not what they lack, people’s acceptance of immigrants were overall more favourable. Shenker-Osorio argues that by literally changing the words we use to speak about an issue, we can also influence how people think about it, having repercussions for politics and policy. Something to think about when writing the next report or talking at a conference about a sticky issue. Frame it positively and you will have people receive it much more favorably.

Highlight no 3.

Arguably one of the best parts of Progress 2013 however, was the chance to mingle with those I consider some of my professional role models. As I mentioned above, this was my first ever conference, so the task of introducing yourself to those you admire is quite daunting. However, after a few awkward first conversations I learnt the following things;

  1. Go with a plan. Since time is scarce at these events and the professionals you meet talk to so many different individuals every day, working out a plan of who you want to speak to and what you want to speak to them about prior to the meeting is essential. This way, you won’t get caught in a conversation about the weather and how good the muffins are, but instead get to use your limited time to your best advantage.
  2. Don’t be scared to introduce yourself. As daunted as you might be about shaking hands with someone you find just a huge bit intimidating because of their greatness, it never hurts to just introduce yourself and say you are a huge admirer of their work. A few times I saw rock star academics on their lonesome at the coffee table, probably because everyone was too in awe to say hi.
  3. When in doubt ask questions. When you have reached your small talk capacity and feel like the conversation is drying out, ask questions of them. People love to talk about themselves and asking them questions about themselves shows that a) you have a strong interest and b) that you are engaged in what they do.

Written by Hannah Morrice
Research Assistant, Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program
The University of Melbourne

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

With Christmas just around the corner the challenge of identifying that handful of special toys that the children in your life will delight in grows ever pressing. Perhaps it is with a modicum of dread that you will tentatively sidle into the department store and hunt out the aisles that are overflowing with yuletide stock designed to entice children and adults alike. Many will breathe a sigh of relief when they realise that the overwhelming choice has been handily whittled down by half into neat categories of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. The pink dolls and ponies, cuddly pets and fairies for the little ladies; monster trucks, action figures and footies for the little men. 


For a growing number of families however, this really rather arbitrary divide is not only unhelpful but one component in a daily challenge to live lives that are unencumbered by gender stereotypes and heteronormative assumptions. In constructing their families many same-sex attracted parents have to run counter to the socially constructed tides of gender and heteronormativity. In a world where many assume that heterosexual relationships form the basic building blocks of family, made whole by a caring mother and provider father, same-sex attracted parents have to navigate a path that deconstructs this assumption and allows for their children to live free of stigma and discrimination. Fundamental to this is the ability to eschew numerous aspects of the gendered world in which we live. Many modern parents subscribe to a similar ethos – increasingly it is understood that young girls can enjoy sports and grow up to be doctors or that boys can choose to be nurses or stay at home dads – but rarely are their lived experiences negatively affected by the subversive gender divide that is ubiquitous throughout society. Most would not give a second thought to the separation of toys in the department store.


The heteronormative world begins its gender distinctions before birth. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is the first question most women are asked when they announce that they are pregnant. And from there it is perpetuated in books, on television, at childcare, in schools. Wothout meaning to discriminate even the most enlightened adults are unlikely to buy pink clothes for their son or a toy tool-kit for their daughter. For same-sex parents and their families it becomes a battle to counter-act this. Having lived outside the heteronomative in their own relationships their children have to wrestle with the abandonment of gendered parenting on the one hand and the ever-present gendering that society throws at them on the other. At once this can be both detrimental to their health, if the rejection of gender leads to increased stigma, and positive for their wellbeing, as parents freed from the constraints of gender-based parenting can find roles that suit the whole family, building family harmony.


This is not all theoretical. As the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families nears the end of its first chapter we have already seen how same-sex parent families excel in terms of family cohesion and how their children display excellent general health. We know that the stigma that these families encounter can be detrimental, and talking to both parents and children reveals their continual battles against heteronormativity and gender stereotyping. To what extent society can learn from this is as yet uncertain, but there are definitely lessons here that are worthy of hearing.


I have twin boys. They are four years old. When I go shopping this Christmas I will be seeking out toys that reflect their interests alone and won’t be swayed by the imposed gendering of department stores.


So that will be one red fire engine and a pink My Little Pony please!


By Dr Simon R Crouch

Lead Investigator, The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families