‘The last thing they needed – I assumed – was one more researcher who wanted to ask them questions for an hour of their precious time.’ Following the ultimatum issued by Turkish authorities to unregistered Syrian refugees in Istanbul to leave the city within one month, this blogpost reflects on the ethical and practical considerations of conducting fieldwork on displacement in volatile and research crowded settings. Being sensitive to time and the resource pressures of civil society organisations and other actors involved in refugee resettlement activities, in addition to the level of research that some areas encounter, requires a flexibility of approach, managing expectations in terms of results, and valuing the unexpected human interactions that emerge when research doesn’t go completely to plan.
‘And then they issued an ultimatum’: Ethical and practical considerations for conducting fieldwork in volatile and research-crowded settings
Blogpost published on refugeehosts.org on February 12, 2020
Last summer, I carried out fieldwork in Turkey for my PhD research on refugees’ perspectives and agency in resettlement practices. I was planning to spend a few weeks in Istanbul conducting interviews with actors involved in resettlement activities and refugee protection, including civil society organisations (CSOs). However, I arrived there just a couple of days before the Turkish authorities issued an ultimatum to Syrian refugees who were not registered in Istanbul to leave the city within a month. The tense situation in Istanbul that preceded and followed the announcement created an additional layer of difficulties and questions for the recruitment of (rather hesitant) respondents in a field that has been fairly over-researched in the last years.
Before I arrived in Istanbul, I tried to reach out to CSOs assisting refugees with legal or other protection issues. Accessing CSOs working with refugees is generally not easy since their clients’ (data) protection is a corner stone of their work and indeed, many organisations were hesitant to talk to me. Luckily, I had received some contacts before starting my fieldwork and thus could send personal emails to ask for interviews. Without these personal contacts, it would have been very difficult to establish enough trust to schedule interviews with CSOs in most cases.
In addition, Turkey has lately been receiving much academic attention. Given that the country has been in the spotlight for hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees, many researchers working on refugee protection or related issues (such as resettlement) have chosen it as a case-study for their projects. Since you can find everything and everybody in Istanbul – including international organisations, CSOs and a high number of refugees – it is not surprising that many researchers (including me) flock to the city to conduct their fieldwork.
This, however, creates a high demand for respondents from CSOs working with refugees. As a result, some organisations become highly professional in their response to academic inquiries. For instance, SGDD-ASAM, an association that supports refugees all over Turkey, has introduced the possibility to carry out an academic study with them. Others told me that they try their best to accommodate interview requests but that they are often overwhelmed with inquiries.
Chances are thus not very high to find CSO respondents in Istanbul who are both willing to share information despite concerns for their clients’ privacy and protection and able to squeeze you into their busy schedules. The chaotic situation in July and August 2019 posed further questions and complications for the recruitment and follow-up with my interview respondents.
Tensions in Istanbul had already risen before the announcement in mid-July that refugees without registration would be deported to refugee camps and refugees registered in another city would be removed to the location of their registration in if they had not left Istanbul on their own until August 20. (On the last day of the ultimatum, the deadline was extended until October 30.) Syrian shops were demolished and Arabic shop signs were torn down after a new regulation was put in place requiring that 75% of the words on any sign had to be written in Turkish. Before and after the ultimatum was issued, authorities conducted wide-spread identity checks in neighbourhoods with many Syrian residents and soon reports circulated that Syrian refugees were put into buses and deported to Syria.
Throughout this period, CSOs thus had enough on their plates supporting refugees to navigate the difficult situation. The last thing they needed – I assumed – was one more researcher who wanted to ask them questions for an hour of their precious time. Still, funding for research stays is not endless and returning home without any of the anticipated data would be very frustrating for the researcher. So how to deal with situations of mistrust, high research fatigue and volatile conditions when the time frame for conducting fieldwork is very limited?
In the end, I myself took a middle path: I followed up on interviews with respondents whom I was already in contact with, but I did not send out any new interview requests to CSOs. Several of the interviews I had scheduled were indeed cancelled, and my approach definitely did not lead to the highest outcome in terms of interview numbers. It did, however, often open up possibilities for exchanges that were more valuable to me than insights on my research topic.
For instance, I was introduced to a small association which is doing important community work in Istanbul and I initially hoped to interview several people who worked for the association. However, it became very clear from the start that they were not really happy to talk to me in my capacity as a researcher. In the end, I decided not to bother them with an interview but to just enjoy tea and conversation in the garden – not as a researcher, but as a person who loves to hear and to share stories, experiences and the best recipe for chocolate cake.