Ethical approaches to refugee-related research.

A researcher’s account from the Western Balkan route

by Chiara Milan


The interest on forced migration has visibly grown with the so-called “long summer of migration” in 2015, which represented an unprecedented phenomenon for the Yugoslav successor states, located along one of the main refugee paths – the Western Balkan route. While the growing influx of people fleeing the Middle East region brought about a rise in solidarity initiatives among the civil society, in academia refugee-related research rose sharply. Notwithstanding the renewed attention to the topic, the ethics of refugee research has received little attention to date. Conducting research with and about forced migrants constitutes a sensitive and delicate issue, which often deeply involves a researcher’s empathy and, at the same time, raises a number of ethical questions.

How should a researcher position him/herself vis-à-vis refugees? Are there any ethical standards a social scientist should follow in the process of data collection, analysis and dissemination? Are there any boundaries she cannot cross? In a nutshell, what are the ethical issues confronting researchers studying forced migrants? This contribution aims to reflect on the ethical implications of refugee research, as well as on the way in which social science can benefit the communities being studied – in this case, refugees and refugee support groups.

A researcher’s account

When conducting research on collective action in support of refugees along the Western Balkan route in summer 2016, I occasionally found it difficult to approach refugees. Similarly, I encountered a certain degree of reluctance towards researchers on the part of some solidarity activists. A group in particular stated on its website that its members would refuse “to act as mediators, translators, fixers or an ‘entry point’ onto the ‘terrain’ for journalists and filmmakers”, owing to “the bad experience with the attitude of journalists”.

Specifically, the activists blamed journalists and filmmakers of lacking a proper reflection and analysis of the phenomenon of migration, contributing in this way to reproduce a discourse that dehumanises and victimises migrants. Moreover, solidarity activists expressed concerns about the approach of the press towards migrants, treated mostly as objects rather than as human beings in a particularly condition of vulnerability.

Although not openly addressing academics, the message of solidarity activists raises a set of questions as regards the code of conduct that should be adopted while approaching refugees. Although there is no single “best practice” for research on forced migration, a responsible approach towards the issue would imply avoiding dehumanising refugees. This means not viewing them exclusively through the lens of being a migrant or a refugee, but rather as human beings with complex life aspirations, who found themselves in the condition of being temporarily voiceless, helpless and emotionally exposed.

This sense of empathy and responsibility should inform the social scientist in every step and aspect of the research. Furthermore, while studying refugee solidarity activists, a researcher should make an effort not to be converted into a spokesperson of movements, as it would be more effective to develop an accurate analysis of the phenomenon and to produce knowledge grounded on the data collected rather than merely amplifying the voices of activists.

On a practical note, one should also avoid taking photographs (let alone publishing them), as this could expose the identity of persons who may in all probability be in danger or fleeing persecution. The same holds for the dissemination of data: in a region in which police surveillance is particularly high such as former Yugoslavia, and actions of solidarity with refugees are often marked as illegal, a researcher ought to be careful to protect the identity of the informants by guaranteeing them a measure of anonymity, as well as avoiding the circulation of potentially sensitive data.

Making research beneficial to refugees and solidarity groups

Driven by the best intentions, social scientists often assume that their analysis and research would trigger some sort of social change, or at least have an impact on national and international institutions. However, this is not always the case. How can our work be relevant for refugees and their support groups? Would they ever benefit from academic research? I believe that a critical analysis of the way in which refugees and refugee solidarity movements organise and mobilise might benefit its participants as well, or at least spark internal discussion, on condition that the material is made accessible to them.

A good practice entails taking research outside the “ivory tower”, making it accessible to those who contributed to creating it, e.g. by sharing with the interviewees the transcripts of their interviews, or the research findings. Finally, I believe it would be particularly useful to initiate a collective reflection among researchers – and, possibly, the researched – upon the ethical implications of refugee-related research, sharing the lessons learnt in the field, in order to identify the best practices to face ethical challenges.


  • Kevin Gillan and Jenny Pickerill (2012) “The Difficult and Hopeful Ethics of Research on, and with, Social Movements”, Social Movement Studies, 11:2, pp. 133-143,
  • Chiara Milan and Stefania Milan (2016) “Involving communities as skilled learners: The STRAP (Sharing, Translation, Relevance, Accountability, Power) framework”, in Methodological Reflection on Researching Communication and Social Change, Wildermuth, Norbert and Teke Ngomba (eds.), Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 9-28.

The Author

Chiara Milan is currently Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, Austria. She holds a PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute. Prior to joining the… see more.


Milan, Chiara: “Ethical Approaches to Refugee-Related Research. A Researcher’s Account from the Western Balkan Route”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (13.03.2017), URL:

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