Camp settings vary considerably and are structured by the conflict, disaster, or political instability that led to their creation. For example, a camp could exist in an acute, dangerous conflict setting, or it may be an established, post-conflict camp housing generations of families more resembling of a village or town. Many camps nevertheless lack adequate resources, such as housing, education, sanitation, and profitable work, creating conditions of vulnerability for research participation. Time spent in camps can also compromise one’s individuality if there is little opportunity to act independently, which is especially important if refugees have experienced significant trauma. One benefit of established camps is the opportunity for researchers to have recurring interactions with refugees and thus build trust. Collaboration and engagement with camp representatives, known as gatekeepers, provides insight into the needs of camp residents, helps researchers locate private and safe spaces, and protects the interests of participants from exploitation; on the other hand, researchers should be aware of potential bias from gatekeepers affecting who participates in the study. This can range from unconscious bias to deliberate silencing of certain voices.
Other ethical issues when conducting research in refugees camps involve confidentiality and privacy of data collection, and maintaining respect for participants. Records of current residents may not be up to date or accurate, creating challenges for sampling techniques or intervention and survey deployment. Maintaining privacy and confidentiality for research participants is especially challenging in camps, especially as people live in such close quarters. Demographic information not traditionally considered identifiable on its own, such as ethnicity, age, dialect, and religion, can become identifiable in camps. Further, if camps are crowded or lack private spaces, it may not be feasible to conduct a study with a participant in private, making certain studies, such as interviews or studies about gender-based violence, difficult to conduct. In newly formed camps, individuals may feel inclined to hide their identity or may even feel shame about their refugee status. Researchers must be aware continuously of how their approach may be harmful to those living in camps.
Finally, another ethical concern has been called the humanitarian misconception, related to ‘therapeutic misconception’ in clinical research. This arises when participants agree to participate in research under the mistaken assumption that this will provide greater access to humanitarian aid. In camps, this can include misconceptions that researchers can expedite participants’ applications for asylum in other countries or relocation to safer areas. Researchers must work diligently to avoid and mitigate such misconceptions.