Doing research on migration and asylum: Responsibilities and limits

By Carolien Jacobs, Leiden University

On June 30, we kicked of the H2020 projects' joint webinar series ‘Zooming in on Migration and Asylum’ with a discussion on ‘Doing research on migration and asylum’. Triggered by recent publications by UNHCR and the IDMC, Carolien Jacobs (Leiden University) took the opportunity to reflect, on behalf of TRAFIG, on the responsibilities and limits of field researchers when they are collecting data.

What is striking about the highlights that (social) media take from the reports of the [UNHCR] ( and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), is that it is mostly about numbers. The world seems to want to know especially whether the number of displaced people globally has risen; what the country with the highest number of refugees is; how many people were displaced because of conflict; how many were newly displaced etc. Number crushers and data fanatics might have a different feel, but personally, numbers make me feel rather numb. They don’t tell me much. At the same time, I am also guilty of starting research papers on internal displacement in the Democratic Republic Congo with numbers, as I know that this is the way in which many readers will expect me to show the relevance of the research.

What is more important to me though, is to show the people that are behind the numbers. As a researcher who is directly involved in the collection of data, I feel I have the responsibility to not simply pass on condensed information through reports or to share numbers but also to tell people’s stories and to give a voice to the people we meet; to make the statistics come alive and to increase understanding about their position, even though the space for that is often limited as the stories help to give meaning to the numbers. Let me give you some nutshell examples.

If you would know that mama Beatrice saw how rebels killed her husband in front of her and then burnt her house, and if you would know that whenever she returns to her village, she is still haunted by these memories, you would better understand that return is not a durable solution for her, even though her village is no longer seen as insecure. You would also better understand why she is so keen on succeeding in the city and taking up whatever job she can find.

If you would know that Kazi was recruited in an armed group and managed to escape six months later, you would understand why he is avoiding close contacts in the neighbourhood and hiding his background. You would also better understand why he has the physical strength and endurance to carry out the hard labour of digging latrines, and why he does not care much about the stigma around his profession. If you would know that Bamu is taking care of his younger orphaned siblings and is covering their school fees, you would better understand why he has not yet managed to build his own family with the income he gets from selling airtime. You would also better understand why he feels his own life is on hold but that he is nevertheless proud of his achievements.

If you would know about all the efforts that Ntakwindja went through before she was able to set up that small restaurant that looks rather insignificant in your eyes, you would better understand her proudness about her business and why she is so eager to to become integrated in the city and to be accepted in the neighbourhood as a successful business woman.

What I still find the hardest part in doing an interview, is closing off the conversation, when we usually ask people whether they have any remaining questions to us; a message to share; or want to address issues that we did not ask them about. Within the humanitarian aid contexts in which many of us carry out the data collection, respondents often ask what they can expect in return for providing all this information. Unfortunately we don’t have a very satisfying answer; we are not there to take stock of their needs and to come back some days later with the aid they would like to get; we are not able to have a direct impact on their lives and to decide on policy changes. Because we have our limits. And the only thing that we can do is to navigate between the worlds of our respondents and of policy makers and practitioners, to mobilize our networks, to pass on the information that we get from respondents, and to share this with a wider audience and hope their stories will be listened to.

Of course, there is much more to tell about the lives of Beatrice, Kazi, Bamu and Ntakwindja and the many other respondents that we have met in the course of our research, but we are quite limited in this and unable to tell you all the stories that we hear. Yet, if we as researchers ask people’s time to tell us about their lives, we also have the responsibility to share their stories.

Stay tuned!

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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