Blog post by Dr Claire Walkey who has recently completed a DPhil at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

I am a researcher in the field of Refugee Studies, but my research does not involve refugees. Throughout my ten months of doctoral fieldwork, I did not complete a single interview with a refugee and, more significantly, they did not really come up at all in the interviews and conversations that I had with UN and government officials working in the refugee sector.  

This was partly by design. My research objective was to study government and UN officials – what they do and how they make decisions. I studied how the transfer of responsibility for registration and refugee status determination (RSD) from UNHCR to the Government of Kenya was negotiated and implemented in practice. Refugees were therefore not my focus of study and, quite predictably, they were simply not present in the offices in Nairobi where I spent most of my time. 

Nonetheless, I expected refugees to come into the research through the officials I interviewed. I expected officials to discuss their actions in relation to refugees. To say: ‘we did x because refugees want x or we think x is best for refugees’. Although their views would be imputed, refugees would at least become actors in the story – a stakeholder whose views had been considered. 

The UNHCR officials that I interviewed were instead driven by what they described as “protection concerns” but these were rarely directly informed by refugees. Ideas about protection had instead been developed through legalistic principles or in reference to UNHCR policy and directives. What were interpreted as the in the interest of refugees, under the broad umbrella of ‘protection’, had therefore been considered but not through direct consultation.

I was, of course, interested in what refugees thought of the transfer process, but as their views were not being directly factored into decision-making – my focus – their views did not become a central part of my research.

I had also thought that refugees might become part of my research because I had expected them to be resisting or shaping institutional processes. In my research, however, refugees had very limited ability to do so. The decision, for example, that the Government would take over RSD happened because UNHCR and the Government decided it would. There were reports that some refugees would not go to a RSD appointment when it was held at the government, hoping it would be rearranged to UNHCR. This, however, had little impact on the larger process and, eventually, as the process is completed, all refugees will likely only have the option to go to a government office.

Refugees, therefore, were not present in the topic I researched. I thought (and hoped) refugees would become important actors to the processes I studied – but, they did not. Decisions were simply made and implemented without them. There were many complex reasons for this and further discussions need to be had about how the actors involved in the management of refugee affairs can insulate themselves away from refugees. 

My focus here, however, is on the methodological implications. My research shows that if we always do research with refugees – as the term ‘Refugee Studies’ itself suggests – we ignore the spaces where refugees are excluded and forms of power that they cannot subvert, resist or challenge, but that nonetheless shape their lives. I wonder how much the current literature’s focus on resistance by refugees is a product of researchers’ focus on refugees which, if viewed within a wider landscape, might appear less disruptive and common. Similarly, how much the focus on how organisations interact with refugees, rather than elite decision-making, ignores institutional realms where refugees are not present. 

There is a sizeable and rich literature that does study power structures and access to elite realms can be highly challenging. Nonetheless, responses I have received to my research, and my own initial expectations, show thatthere remains the view that research about refugee issues should or will by default include refugees. My experience however reveals that we need to start with more open and exploratory research questions and parameters regarding how and when the interests of refugees are directly considered within humanitarian decision-making. This approach is not necessarily silencing of refugees but rather provides important insights into how and when refugees are silenced.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.