Doing field research during a Pandemic: what TRAFIG researchers in Italy have learned

By Giulia Gonzales, Floriana Russo, Yonas Sium and Emanuela Roman, FIERI – Forum of International and European Research on Immigration

Between September 2020 and February 2021, the FIERI team implemented the TRAFIG survey in Italy. The survey was carried out by three interviewers, Giulia Gonzales, Floriana Russo and Yonas Sium, who focused mainly (but not exclusively) on three geographical areas: the north-west of Italy (mainly the city of Torino), the north-east of Italy, and the city of Rome. The target population included migrants in protracted displacement situations belonging to three main national/regional groups: West Africans, South Asians (Afghans and Pakistanis) and Eritreans. Notwithstanding the huge obstacles and difficulties posed by the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic during that period, the interviewers managed to complete the survey in the foreseen timeframe, interviewing overall 300 migrants. What follows is a multi-faceted account of what it means to conduct quantitative research with vulnerable migrants living in a precarious legal and socio-economic situation during the COVID-19 crisis.

Picture: Tibor Krizsak

How has the Coronavirus pandemic affected the implementation of the survey and changed your original plans?

Giulia Gonzales: My initial plan was to split my fieldwork between Piemonte and Liguria, two neighbouring regions in the north-west of Italy, bordering France. In Piemonte, my targets were the city of Torino and the southern countryside of the region – the Saluzzo area – a rural site attracting agricultural migrant workers under growing exploitative conditions. I aimed to reach out to associations, friends and former colleagues from a harvesting job I took in the summer 2020 in Saluzzo. In Liguria, I was going to implement a similar method – mixing personal contacts with friends and formal contacts with associations – focusing on my hometown Imperia and Ventimiglia. This plan was crushed. For personal reasons (COVID-19 illness in my household), I was able to start working only at the end of October 2020, when the second wave hit Italy. Within a regime of regionally diversified lockdowns, Piemonte was immediately declared a “red zone”. In such a context, I managed to conduct my interviews only because I could lean on two types of pre-existing long-term relationships: institutional ones and personal ones.

In relation to the former, FIERI gave me access to all its local contacts in Piemonte and, among them, Ufficio Pastorale Migranti (UPM). This organisation, part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Torino, decided to remain open under the “red zone” to provide some of its essential services to migrants. I was given an office, where meetings could be held in safety, and a list of UPM’s pre-contacted people to whom I explained TRAFIG’s project and proposed to participate in the survey. Although sometimes the mediating process produced some misunderstandings and false expectations, overall this method worked very well and the face-to-face setting facilitated a snowball effect to expand my pool of contacts. UPM’s continuation of services made it possible to associate people’s appointments with meetings with me. This was crucial to provide migrants with a legitimate reason to move within the city especially in an atmosphere of police racially-informed controls. UPM provided me the contacts of other reception projects in Torino (TerreMondo, AltriModi, Rifugio Diffuso) where, if needed, I went myself to hold interviews in open-air. UPM’s availability and openness in working with me was linked to FIERI-UPM’s trustworthy and long-lasting relationship.

In relation to personal contacts, in Imperia and the surrounding villages, friends offered their availability to be interviewed, and through word of mouth they made their friends accessible to me. In Liguria, at that time, COVID-19-related restrictions were not that tight and I could conduct interviews outdoor, at coffee places or during walks. In Torino, the situation was a bit more complicated, not only due to the lockdown restrictions, but also for some lasting representations of COVID-19 as a “whites’ illness”, further increased by my personal household’s experience of it. Indeed, some friends did not feel at ease to meet me, despite safety measures. However, after a couple of months, and since we started to meet again during other occasions, they declared themselves available to take part in the survey during the last stretch of my work.

Floriana Russo: My original task was to interview people coming mainly from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto, in the north-east of Italy. However, I was able to move across the two regions only for one month; my trips to Friuli Venezia Giulia ended as soon as the second wave started. I had to change the initial plan and conduct my interviews almost entirely in Veneto, where I had limited connections with associations. Given these circumstances and the need to ensure everyone’s safety, we decided to expand my target population, so to include also migrants coming from West Africa, also living in different regions in Italy, and to allow for interviews to be carried out online or via phone, rather than face-to-face.

I started to conduct my interviews by video-calling people. Having a screen dividing me from the respondent had its pros and cons; at first, I was only aware of the cons. Firstly, interviewees did not have the chance to talk to me in person before the actual interview, which created an extra “social distance”. Secondly, it was much harder to get in touch with people willing to participate spontaneously. Thirdly, in the first month, I was able to conduct face-to-face interviews with people with poor Italian and poor English because there was always someone available to translate for me. Only once in the following three months was I able to conduct a couple of interviews via video-call with the help of an informal interpreter. This represented a strong limitation, as I did not manage to reach out and include people who could not talk my working languages.

However, I realised not only that some of these issues could be solved, but also that they could have positive outcomes. Firstly, recording a short video of myself addressed to potential interviewees was a game-changer. Exposing myself, showing how I talk and look like helped to break the ice, even at a distance. Secondly, thanks to this agile method of video-calls, I managed to get in touch with people living in remote areas or homeless that I would have hardly reached otherwise.

Yonas Sium: I was asked to carry out my fieldwork mainly in the city of Rome, collecting data mainly from Eritreans in a situation of protracted displacement. Rome is a relevant site where migrants and refugees – and among them an undefined number of Eritreans – live in a state of limbo. As the majority of Eritreans in Rome live in occupied buildings located in different areas of the city, I mainly focused on these locations. Each squat is usually inhabited by about 300 to 1,000 people of different nationalities, including Ethiopians and Somalis; but more than two-thirds are Eritreans. During my fieldwork, I visited and recruited participants mainly in four big squats where Eritrean refugees are a large majority. In addition, I interviewed some Eritrean refugees who are hosted in reception centres in Rome, even though I preferred to meet them outside the centre.

During my fieldwork, I faced a number of challenges. The first one was the seriousness of the second wave of the pandemic, with its ever-changing law enforcement protocols. During the first month of fieldwork my interviews progressed very well. In that period I could freely visit and meet people in squats, private houses, national restaurants, billiard rooms and the church. In these locations I could get in touch with people and arrange subsequent meetings and face-to-face interviews. However, due to the second pandemic wave I had to stop visiting these places and shift to online or phone interviews. I found it extremely challenging to reach out to people that I never met before using only social media and smartphones. It was very difficult to build trust at a distance. This would have been simply impossible without the help of some close friends of mine who reside in the abovementioned locations and acted as mediators between prospective participants and me.

Along with the pandemic, which are the main challenges that you had to face? How did you cope with them?

Yonas Sium: Besides the difficulties posed by the pandemic, one of the most serious challenges for me was to encounter participants who are in a desperate need for immediate support. This represented a moral challenge that is still echoing in my conscience.

Another challenge was the weak cooperative spirit I found in most prospective participants. This was due to lack of trust on the purpose of the project and on the concrete changes it could actually bring in their life. The project’s capacity to provide solutions based on the findings gathered from fieldwork was harshly questioned. This cost me extra time and energy and a patient socio-cultural psychological work to obtain a minimum of trust from prospective participants on the purpose of the project.

Some people felt even proud of their decision to refuse cooperating and considered it as an ethically responsible choice. In the past, they had already been involved in other research projects, which promised to offer solutions, while providing no follow-up. Therefore, for whatever cooperation they decide to offer, there is normally a high expectation of direct gain in return. Normally, they expect special support from me on their future needs and assumed that I owe them something.

In addition, I found it very important to treat equally and in a positive manner both those who cooperated and those who decided not to cooperate, remained reserved, or contradicted themselves. Even when I received a non-cooperative response from a prospective participant, I deemed it relevant to continue discussing with this person about the concept of the research so that he/she could gain a better understanding of it, while appreciating his/her choice and leaving him/her in a friendly way. Having a friendly attitude with everyone was crucial to prevent disseminating through word of mouth a negative impression or a bad reputation among other potential participants. This meant being extremely patient and sacrificing extra time with non-cooperative people as well. Reaching as many as three persons to get one actual participant – that is reaching 300 persons to get 100 actual participants – in four months with the abovementioned restrictions, personal reservations and ethical challenges was not easy.

Another challenge was represented by the fact that many interviewees did not want to disclose any personal information, especially if they planned to leave Italy and apply for asylum in other countries. Likewise, some interviewees did not want to share information about visits to the country of origin, contacts they have in other countries, or support they receive from family members and friends living elsewhere. Finally, I also encountered some suspicion and skepticism towards my position as an Eritrean on the ongoing transnationally polarised politics pro/contra the Eritrean government; this attitude was combined with the attempt to verify also the purpose of the TRAFIG project within this context.

What did you learn?

Floriana Russo: Initially, the main strategy I used to reach out to prospective participants was by contacting key gate-keepers, including more than 60 organisations working with asylum seekers and refugees. However, I found that often these NGOs and their social workers were not inclined to share with me contacts of people who were facing a particularly hard time. This kind of attitude, which sees the respondent as a person to protect, clashed with the fact that people living very harsh situations (i.e. persons who are homeless for years, victims of human trafficking, irregular migrants) were overall among the most interested in participating and willing to tell their story, once I got in touch with them.

Another interesting element concerns the issue of violence. When I first read the text of the survey I was concerned about the question “Have you experienced violence in the country you live in?” I felt uncomfortable talking so directly about violence, particularly with women. However, during my last month of work, I conducted various interviews with Nigerian women who have been victims of trafficking. While conducting these interviews I realised that my initial worry was somehow misleading: sadly, I found that violence was so ordinary to them, that asking that question felt absolutely normal.

Giulia Gonzales: In a critical period as the one we are experiencing, in which inequalities are more evident than ever but their political tackling is (at its best) oblivious, a network of pre-existing relationships (either personal or institutional) has been key to conduct and conclude the survey. These lasting relationships can be thought as long-term articulations of reciprocity and trust, either between friends, or between people providing services and people accessing them. Secondly, straightforward explanations of what it was at stake and the inexistence of immediate tangible benefits for the participants (besides some pizza and advice on existing services within the municipality) allowed discussions to take place only with people who truly felt at ease with it. The importance of maintaining relationships and building on them in the process of imagining more equal societies (a practice that cannot be disjointed from the research work and the realm of politics, at least in my understanding) is fundamental, especially in a moment of mediation and distance such as the current one. It is thanks to those pre-existing ties that I managed to offer participants time and space for listening, beyond the time required to conduct the survey. This was probably the most important intangible benefit they received from me.

To conclude

The experiences shared by the three interviewers involved in the survey in Italy are revealing of the concrete obstacles posed to the implementation of field research by the pandemic – and of their great capacity to resort to one’s flexibility, creativity and determination to cope with this challenging situation. Their experiences show also that there are several ethical issues at stake when conducting research with disadvantaged people. How to deal with the asymmetry of power between interviewer and respondent? How to reward participants for offering so much as their life story to you? How to cope with the risk to raise false expectations and the lack of any perceived direct benefits for the participant? What does it mean for respondents the “promise” that their participation to the research may contribute to raise awareness, inform the public debate and possibly lead to future policy changes?

There is no univocal and straightforward answer to these questions. However, conducting research entails opening up opportunities for dialogue and exchange, sometimes between worlds that do not easily communicate to each other. For some participants, the opportunity to tell their story and be listened to may represent a value in itself. Moreover, social research has the potential to offer marginalised people a venue for their voice to be heard by a broader public and/or by policy-makers. In some cases, this dialogue with the researcher may help a participant making sense of his/her personal situation and may offer him/her new tools of analysis. Sometimes, this may represent a step contributing to enhance his/her political awareness. For this and other reasons, probably, conducting research with marginalised people and disadvantaged groups has an ethical value in itself – notwithstanding the ethical challenges stemming from it.


We would like to thank all the survey’s respondents for sharing their personal experiences and their time with us as part of this project. We would like to thank all the non-governmental organisations which provided us with their help and support: Ufficio Pastorale Migranti (especially the Women’s Office staff), TerreMondo, AltriModi, Rifugio Diffuso, Mosaico – Azioni per i Rifugiati (all based in Torino), Cooperativa Progest (Imperia), Cooperativa Il Girasole (Treviso), Cooperativa Una Casa per l’Uomo (Montebelluna), Centro Astalli Vicenza, Progetto Jumping (Venezia), Consorzio Italiano di Solidarietà (Trieste), Centro Caritas Udine. We would also like to thank ASGI members (Associazione Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione), individual activists, cultural mediators, social workers, volunteers, lawyers and practitioners who provided useful suggestions and helped us reaching the respondents.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the TRAFIG Consortium or the European Commission (EC). TRAFIG is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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