From protocol development to data dissemination, research involving migrant and refugee populations must consider the unique circumstances of their displacement. These circumstances range from acute and transient to chronic and (relatively) stable scenarios. Ethical considerations primarily include issues of trust and confidentiality, research benefit and risks to participants, imbalances of power in the research relationship, and appropriate methodologies for data collection.
Refugees and migrants are considered a vulnerable research population because of their displacement, often due to conflict or other disasters. Present circumstances also add to conditions of vulnerability, such as living in a camp, residing in an unfamiliar culture, living without basic necessities or relying on external agencies for basic necessities, or possessing only temporary residency. The circumstances leading to displacement requires humanitarian and disaster researchers to carefully consider and mitigate the risk of unintended harm while also aiming to benefit this population in light of their situation.
To accomplish this, trust is a major ethical consideration in refugee and migrant research. Researchers must take time and care to establish trusting relationships with the community being studied. These can take significant time to develop and lead to long-lasting connections. Language barriers can further undermine trust and prevent authentic data collection. Another ethical concern is that recruitment and data collection may not always be feasible in conditions of temporary refuges, where a breach of confidentiality that exposes the participant’s identity could be life-threatening. With both migrants and refugees, an individual’s decision to participate in research may have undesired effects on their family or the surrounding community, or consent may be difficult to obtain in privacy. Researchers must also learn to be especially flexible with this population. During the course of a study, for example, the research team should routinely assess for any ethical concerns with staff or participants and respond to concerns as needed.
The methodology employed and types of data collected must be carefully considered. Participatory research used in social research can directly benefit this population by allowing them to collaborate with researchers and decide what research questions are most valuable. Narrative studies provide the opportunity for refugees and migrants to share their personal stories, but participants may feel exploited if the researcher is not respectful toward uses of data or data ownership. Other types of research, such as with public health and biomedical studies, may place undue burdens or coercion if the population lacks access to healthcare or health resources. Expectations that participation will affect access to resources, relocation, or other type of external aid may also influence a refugee’s understanding of the study, which can be a challenge to work against for researchers.