Geography, Environment & Migration

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The Ethics of Migration Research Methodology

Dealing with Vulnerable Immigrants

Ilse van Liempt is a Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sussex. She completed her PhD in 2007 at the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES) in Amsterdam and has extensive experience in conducting qualitative research.

Veronika Bilger is a Researcher at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). She has conducted various projects involving migrants in precarious situations.

The recent increased attention given to qualitative research, and especially research involving vulnerable persons, has not yet been adequately translated into corresponding research on the methodological and ethical challenges researchers face. The relative scarcity of such scholarship reflects the dilemma of the multidisciplinary nature of the study of migration.

The aim of this book is to present the difficulties that researchers working with migrants in precarious situations have to contend with, and to contribute to the development of methodological and ethical discussions relevant to the topic of migration as an interdisciplinary field of research. The contributors to the volume do this through a threefold approach: Discussion of methods and ethics in institutional settings; a rethinking of basic research methods; and defining the role of the researcher.

Earlier research – focusing on document analysis (police files and court cases), expert interviews and narrative interviews with smuggled migrants – indicated that there is a strong need for a deepened debate on methodology when researching human smuggling, trafficking and other forms of irregularity. Subsequent workshops (in Geneva and Toronto) on the topic of interviewing vulnerable migrants confirmed the necessity of finding solutions for the methodological challenges encountered. This book is essential reading for all persons and organizations dealing with vulnerable migrants

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-331-7
Hardback Price: £47.50 / $74.95
Release Date: September 2009
Page Extent / Format: 224 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface and Acknowledgements

Veronika Bilger and Ilse van Liempt

Part One Methods and Ethics in Institutional Settings
1 Methodological issues for the study of migrant incarceration in an era of discretion in law in the southern USA
Robert F. Barsky

Multi-perspective research on foreigners in prisons in Switzerland.
Christin Achermann

Part Two Rethinking Basic Research Methods

3 Different methods to research irregular migration
Richard Staring

4 Challenges and strategies in empirical fieldwork with asylum seekers and migrant sex workers
Janine Dahinden and Denise Efionayi-Mäder

5 Methodological and ethical dilemmas in research among smuggled migrants
Veronika Bilger and Ilse van Liempt

Part Three The Role of the Researcher
6 The ‘insider’ position: ethical dilemmas and methodological concerns in researching undocumented migrants with the same ethnic background
Eugenia Markova

7 The fieldworker as social worker: dilemmas in research with Moroccan unaccompanied minors
Nuria Empez


It is refreshing how this book avoids the pretence of many approaches to methodology and instead opens up the difficult questions around research construction and the role of the researcher in work with vulnerable migrants. Apart from opening up the space for honest debate, it also refuses to recommend one ethic of migration research. Full of detailed deconstruction of the emotional and political aspects of this type of research, the book skillfully invites critical thinking and rasies awareness of why it is often so hard to stand for integrity as researchers in a context of injustice. A very welcome high-level contribution to a much-need debate.
Dr. Christien van den Anker, Reader at University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol

Migration studies increasingly deal with “vulnerable populations”, defined as those who lack the ability to make personal life choices, personal decisions, or maintain independence and self-determination. Inmates in prisons, subjects of human or sexual trafficking, and migrants displaced by war are considered vulnerable populations. Dealing with migration that is so akin to human suffering raises methodological and ethical considerations for field population researchers. This book identifies and grapples with these issues, raising concerns worthy of exploration and debate.
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