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