Ethical challenges of depositing refugee transcripts in the UK Data Archive

Emma Stewart and Marnie Shaffer reflect upon their experience of the institutional demand to deposit interview material from two of their ESRC-funded grant projects: the experiences and opinions of refugees living in Scotland towards the UK citizenship process and becoming British citizens (Stewart and Mulvey, 2011) and understanding refugee onward migration and integration in the context of UK dispersal policy (Stewart and Shaffer, 2015). Both projects adopted a biographical approach to collect life histories in an open-ended way.

When refugees engage in in-depth interviews, it is often a cathartic as well as a painful experience.  Recently arrived Syrian refugees talking about the stages of denial, shock, and grief before leaving their home country.  The words of a hermaphrodite expressing the experiences of being shunned by family and feelings of depression, loss, and desperation.  And the tears shared between a male refugee and his interpreter when recounting life in their homeland.  The disclosure of sensitive material means that the duty of confidentiality and trust must be strictly honoured by researchers in the dissemination and archival of refugee stories. However, there is lack of specific guidance available to researchers on the process of archiving refugee accounts.  This is important since the mandatory requirement to archive data leads to researchers and funding institutions facing everyday challenges caused by the practicalities of archiving, and the inevitable tensions that arise between procedural and micro-ethics (Pollock, 2012).

The transcripts from our interviews needed to be prepared for deposit in the UK Data Archive, the repository that acts as gatekeeper for the UK’s largest digital collection of social sciences and population research data, both qualitative and quantitative.  The limited practical guidelines available to researchers on the process of curating, depositing, and archiving qualitative refugee accounts meant that we were faced with the need to make several judgement-based decisions.  During the depositing process, in particular, we had to negotiate the fine line between decisions based upon rules rather than judgement.

Negotiating the ethics of depositing sensitive life histories

Admittedly, we felt protective of the intimate stories that were shared with us and reluctantly prepared these accounts for archiving.  We believe that allowing refugees to speak freely during their interviews ultimately helped them in their healing process.  In their most vulnerable moments, there was a humanity that the researchers wanted to honour by omitting extraneous details from the transcripts going to the archive.  We made the decision to remove sensitive and personal information in such cases and feel justified for doing so.  For us, it was a violation of the trust we had built to share intimate details that were disclosed to us in that moment.  From a more practical stance, while certain details were undoubtedly important to the individual to share during their conversation, they were not central to the research project topics of British citizenship and onward migration.

As a central tenet of qualitative research, we based our decisions to include/exclude material on protecting the identity of the research participants.  We became aware through consultation with a local refugee agency (who recounted a previous negative experience when conducting similar research) that the triangulation of data can potentially threaten the confidentiality and anonymity of participants.  While single details may not be problematic, the cross-referencing of data had to be addressed.  Collectively, details from several interviews could be pieced together to reveal the individuals whose identities we promised to protect.  The potential of allowing this to happen through the archival process was non-negotiable for us.  Refugee stories included information relating to experiences of domestic abuse, persecution based upon gender, and gender reassignment surgery.

Preparing transcripts for archive

Allow us to illustrate with a few examples.  We interviewed a couple who had previously been denied asylum and, consequently, were deported to their home country where they were immediately detained and imprisoned.  Eventually they were able to flee the country to the UK and were granted asylum.  During the interview, the couple deviated from our questions to share intimate details of their prison experience.  We gave them the space to talk because they felt safe opening up to us.  In another example, a male refugee discussed his political resistance at home and all he had lost before leaving his country.  Refugees shared stories about events such as an extramarital affair or a woman who fled from a wealthy, abusive employer who had brought her to the UK to work.  There were villages, towns, and unique jobs that could easily identify an individual if pieced together.  If we had not censured these details, the physical and emotional damage could have been monumental.

For vulnerable individuals, the danger of identity disclosure extends beyond the potential consequences of analysis by future generations of qualitative researchers.  Instead, collision with spheres of governance and regulation holds the most serious threat, potentially to the very existence and lives of the interviewees.  The insecurity of archives in the face of legal challenges, exemplified by cases such as the ‘Boston tapes’, is testament to this.

We endeavoured to restrict our redactions to confidential and identifiable details, but in a few instances, this included significant sections of the interview transcripts.  Based upon the extremely sensitive nature of certain cases and the potential harm that could result for identifiable subjects, we also took the decision to use the restricted access route offered by the depository.  The restricted access arrangement means that before data is released to future users, the original researcher(s) must grant access which is then approved by those who manage the repository.  This is an extra administrative duty beyond the timeline of the research project, but we felt it was important to retain this input into future data access.  We realise that redactions may impact upon future usability of the data, but this was a necessary step for us, and we support not depositing extremely sensitive data.

Towards a nuanced and sensitive data preservation method

In sum, we found the process of archiving refugee accounts very demanding both practically and emotionally.  We strongly felt the responsibility of gatekeeper to the refugee accounts and endeavoured to reconcile institutional demands and ethical challenges by redacting sensitive material and utilising the restricted access route with the repository.  This critical issue warrants further discussion and evaluation of existing requirements, which do not reflect the nuances of research projects that focus on sensitive topics and deeply personal accounts.  We advocate for research teams’ empowerment as subject matter experts to determine the level of appropriateness when required to preserve and share research data for others to use.

To read more about our research and the challenges faced, please see:

Stewart, E. and Shaffer, M. (2021) The ethical and practical challenges of archiving refugee accounts: reflections from two research projects in the UK. Bulletin of Sociological Methodology = Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 150(1), pp. 51-69. (doi: 10.1177/0759106321995707)

Bibliography

 Pollock, K. (2012) Procedure versus process: Ethical paradigms and the conduct of qualitative research. BMC Medical Ethics 13(25) (doi.org/10.1186/1472-6939-13-25)

Stewart E and Mulvey G (2011) Becoming British Citizens? Experiences and Opinions of Refugees. Living in Scotland, Scottish Refugee Council, Glasgow. Available at: https://www.scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Becoming-British-citizens-Experiences-and-opinions-of-refugees-living-in-Scotland.pdf

Stewart E and Shaffer M (2015) Moving On? Dispersal Policy, Onward Migration and Integration of Refugees in the UK. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Available at: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/209384/

Stewart, E. and Shaffer, M. (2021) The ethical and practical challenges of archiving refugee accounts: reflections from two research projects in the UK. Bulletin of Sociological Methodology = Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 150(1), pp. 51-69. (doi: 10.1177/0759106321995707)

 

 

 

 

Authors

Dr Emma Stewart
Emma holds a MA (Hons) degree and PhD in Geography, both from the University of Dundee. Emma's longstanding research interests are in the field of population studies, with a focus...
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Dr Marnie Shaffer
Dr Marnie Shaffer holds a PhD in Anthropology from the Ohio State University and worked with refugees for over ten years in academia, focusing on changing gender roles and onward...
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