The importance of research ethics in refugee education research

The importance of research ethics in refugee education research

By Aime Parfait Emerusenge and Aimee Furaha Tuyirate

Research ethics have been a key consideration since the beginning of the Voices of Refugee Youth study. As Youth Researchers, our first training sessions devoted hours of discussions on the topic of research ethics, considering the reasons why we should apply them during the research study. This blog explores the ways in which research ethics play an important role in refugee education research and the way they have been applied by the Youth Researchers during data collection for the Voices of Refugee Youth study.

Research ethics can keep at minimum the risk of harm to participants. There are many potential risks to consider. These include physical harm that participants may undergo as a result of participating in the research such as injury or physical abuse to name but a few, the psychological distress and discomfort which may be caused by the nature of the questions used during the research, the social disadvantage for the participants due to their participation in the research, the harm to financial status due to the financial losses or costs that participants may have for participating in the research, and the invasion of privacy and anonymity when their identity is known by the third parties due to the research. Ensuring ethical compliance can prevent such issues in refugee education research, hence its importance.

Although we did not encounter all the risks stated above, there were some cases which demanded careful consideration. This often happened while interviewing refugee participants and asking potentially sensitive questions about challenges they have faced. One youth researcher shared her experience of this: she interviewed a female participant who became emotional after remembering the way she faced difficulties in completing her secondary education, due to the lack of food, clothes, and other basic school materials. Fortunately, Jigsaw and REUK have trained Youth Researchers in the ways we can both cope with such situations. For example, showing empathy is the main way to solve such issues. Our Youth Researcher paused the interview and spoke with the participant, recognising that the question was sensitive and reminding her that it was not mandatory to answer it. After a short conversation, the participant proposed that the interview should continue. Minimising the risk of harm to participants in this way has therefore remained a priority whenever it was required during this research study.

Research ethics also require the obtention of informed consent from research participants. This is a foundational principle of research ethics. It ensures that every participant understands that they are taking part in the research, and the implications of this participation. A researcher must explain to the participants the purpose of the research, what the research will involve, how the data will be used, and the way the research will likely have an impact. As Youth Researchers, we recognised the importance of this mandatory step. However, the challenge that we both faced during data collection was when some refugee participants only had a short time to participate in the survey or interviews, whether face-to-face or via phone calls. Due to these constraints, they sometimes wanted us to skip the informed consent stage. However, in the interest of upholding good practice in research ethics, we had to explain to them the importance of passing by this stage, so that they could understand everything about the research in which they were participating.

Finally, research ethics require that the anonymity and confidentiality of research participants is upheld. In the case of the Voices of Refugee Youth study, this has meant that Youth Researchers have had to ensure that the identity and contributions of the participants are kept confidential. The one way we have achieved this was to ensure that we meet participants in places that allowed them to speak freely. For instance, during previous rounds of data collection, we had to make sure that the refugee participants (who are students in secondary and higher education) were in a place where the school authorities could not influence their responses. However, it was not easy to ensure anonymity and confidentiality in some situations, due to COVID-19 measures. During this period, Youth Researchers were obliged to collect data remotely. It was therefore hard to know that the research participant was not with another friend that may influence his or her responses. For every situation, however, we did everything we could to ensure confidentiality and anonymity.

In short, during the Voice of Refugee Youth study, research ethics have been considered, and they have proved to be important. There have been situations in which it was hard to apply them, especially during the remote data collection. Nonetheless, as Youth Researchers, we have tried our best to handle these critical situations and uphold the safety of the research participants at all times.