How can we create meaningful research for (Refugee) Communities?

Friederike Enßle-Reinhardt, Birgit Glorius and Hanne Schneider

Technische Universität Chemnitz

Reflections from the Fourth Conference of the German Network for Forced Migration Studies

In September 2022, the fourth conference of the German Network for Forces Migration Studies took place at Chemnitz University of Technology. With over 400 online and on-site participants, the conference has evolved as an important platform of exchange for international and German-based researchers on research projects, research approaches, and methodological considerations. The conference is visited by scholars and practitioners from various disciplines, such as sociologists, political scientists, geographers, lawyers, social work, health care and psychologists. Members of Whole-COMM have also been presenting recent findings at the conference.

One of the conference’s key topics was the role of refugees in research projects and the significance of (self) critical perspectives on researchers’ positionalities in research on forced migration: Do we understand refugees as “research subjects”, research participants or co-designers of research questions and projects? In how far do we reflect on questions of positionality and hegemonic relationships in our research, given that research on forced migration continues to be implemented mainly from the perspective of non-refugees?

To explore these questions, we collected different perspectives of refugee-led organizations (RLOs) in a video statement. The video made us stop and think about our own research practices, such as our activities in the Whole-COMM project. We would like to share four of our thoughts with you. 

Enhancing communication and leave space for refugees’ self-representation

“Everyone was talking about refugees, but no one talking with refugees. And their lived experiences become like data, their experiences are represented by other actors instead of them” (Anila Noor, New Women Connectors, extract from the video)

As a seemingly obvious point, RLOs stressed the importance to directly talk with refugees about their perspectives and, which requires more thoughts and effort, leaving spaces for refugees to represent their experiences. Working from a whole-of-community perspective, our research involves direct conversation with migrants about their experiences in the communities. Focus group discussions with long-term residents and post-2014 migrants could further serve as a platform for refugees to share their experiences. Still, at least in the case of Germany, it proved difficult to create a format of exchange where persons with refugee backgrounds could share their experiences without being confronted with long-term residents’ (disappointed) expectations of “good integration”. Yet, by applying a whole-of-community research approach, relations with various stakeholders have been developed during the project and it seems worthy to invest thought on how we as researchers can facilitate first-hand exchange between post-2014 migrants’ experiences and local actors from policy and administration.  

Multiple impact research

You should always consider how the refugees, or people that you add at your research, can benefit from this. So, for your research to have a multiple impact and not only one-purpose research, either for graduation or for a certain project. How can we not only think of the main part, but also of the by-product? And how can different people benefit from it?”
(Mustafa Alio, R-Seat, extract from the video)

In ambitious large-scale research projects, we as researchers are mainly focused on keeping to the project plan and delivering the agreed reports to the third-party funder on time. Being incredibly busy between field research, analysis, writing up results and re-entering the field for further research, there is a lack of time to truly reflect on our findings and develop output that goes beyond the agreed deliverables. Still, we should take seriously what Mustafa Alio in the above-mentioned quote calls “by-products”: What can we offer to our research participants, refugees but also other community members? How can we create formats of knowledge transmission that communities truly benefit from? 

Resharing the outcomes

Connected to the thoughts on multiple impact research, it is worth reflecting on possible modes of resharing our results with refugee communities. Would people benefit from hearing the experiences of refugees in other localities? Would a written statement, a podcast or direct conversation be the suitable format?

It [sharing results] could even just be direct conversation, like researchers having better relationships with communities to be able to present the work that they are doing and show it in their context. So, I think it’s really about being creative and innovative and stepping outside of our academic and scholarship networks and frame of thinking and going beyond that, challenging ourselves to make it more applicable and accessible.” (Rez Gardi, R-Seat, extract from the video)

Resharing outcomes in an applicable and accessible way would require having good relationship with refugee communities. For the German cases however, where empirical research of six case studies in five different parts of Germany had to be organized in less than four months, it proved unrealistic to establish sound relations with refugee communities. It thus remains a challenge how to share outcomes in a meaningful way. 

Co-designing future projects

What is currently happening, is that refugee engagement happens at a stage that is too late to be meaningful engagement. […] Bringing refugees in at the initial design stage, and in that way, even the research question and the way it is guided, the angle that is taken, is coming from a perspective that is in line with realities on the ground and the experiences of refugees.
(Rez Gardi, Managing director of R-Seat)

Thinking of future research projects, the perspectives of RLOs urges us to include refugees earlier and more fundamentally in the design of research processes. Especially when researching from a whole-of-community perspective with a specific focus on local contexts, it could be very fruitful if we asked questions that are relevant to the specific local communities we work with, and not primarily those, we deducted from previous research and existing literature.  Of course, this is a true challenge considering the laborious process of developing a research project that is most often squeezed between ongoing research, teaching and publication obligations. Still, if our work is meant to make a difference, we should stop and consider well our possibilities and freedom as researchers to conduct our work in one or the other way.  

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