Guest post by Daniela DeBono, Sofia Rönnqvist, and Karin Magnusson, research fellows at Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare, Sweden. In this post, Daniela, Karin, and Sofia address the challenges they faced while conducting field research for the project Migrants’ Experiences of Involuntary Return, funded by the European Return Fund. This post is the second instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Research Methodologies, organised by Prof Mary Bosworth.
Forced return in Sweden is characterized by heavy politicization, systemic fragmentation and is shrouded in a veil of securitization. Forced return is both an organized activity, with different state and non-state authorities involved, and an activity that seeks to end a relationship of responsibility between the state and the non-citizen. The forced return migration process is generally not conceptualised as a comprehensive process by policy-makers or practitioners but rather as a loosely linked series of activities that eventually lead to the return of the migrant. This is possibly due to the disparate institutional actors involved. For migrants however, the actual “end threat” of removal to their country of origin is very real and hangs like a dark shadow on their existence for as long as they hold temporary permits of residence. This dark shadow of deportation takes on new and tangible proportions through the institutional forms and practices that migrants, who have either failed their application for asylum or who have no other lawful permit to remain in the country, encounter. Our project attempts to start filling a knowledge gap by exploring migrants’ own experiences of this particular forced return process conceptualised as a social, cultural and political phenomenon. Access and contact with migrants is therefore of utmost importance to our project.
Another example of being met with distrust and suspicion came from the NGO side, where we had some prior contacts and had established, again what we thought was, a good relationship. In fact we were invited to spend time in their facilities, which migrants use to relax and to get in touch with the NGO for help. In this case we were wrongly accused of omitting information about where the funding was coming from. The European Return Fund is linked to the EU Return Directive and this civil organisation had a strong ideological position against both. Accusations flew high and low. Our morality and integrity as researchers and persons were put into question. Attempts to break through this impasse left us in a state of frustration, despair and confusion. It seemed impossible for anyone to understand that we genuinely wanted to understand how migrants experience the forced return process. We did not have ulterior political motives and did not want to align ourselves with any of the actors. Irrespective of this we were constantly labelled, re-labelled, positioned and re-positioned by the different actors themselves. The common motive, or least outcome of this, was that we were excluded from the field and contact with migrants was made directly or indirectly extremely difficult.
Rays of light kept us going in the difficult periods. We had a few contacts, often individual and undercover, who were extremely helpful. Slowly new doors opened here and there as people of different affiliations and institutions agreed to help us in significant ways. Although to be honest, it was and still is, quite hard to really understand why some contacts worked and others did not. A possible explanation in our attempts to understand and make sense of our interactions with different gatekeepers or middlemen are Bourdieu’s concepts of the ‘field’ and ‘symbolic capital.’ This field of activity of deportation is clearly not homogenous, and practices that are connected to different fields (bureaucracies such as the police and the Migration Board, activist groups, voluntary organisations) have their own separate rules of access and power structures. The researcher thus requires different symbolic capital to gain trust and legitimacy in these different fields. From this point of view, although this of course is only a part explanation of what was going on, we, the three researchers, lacked enough symbolic capital in these different gatekeeping fields to enable us to access them.
We are aware that our frustration is coming from trying to establish contact or fruitful interaction with gatekeepers, when the people we really wanted to meet, the migrants, were ironically the easiest to speak to. Reaching the migrants meant that we needed to change our original strategy. We worked hard with the principle of “the strength of weak ties” made popular by several anthropologists and social network analysts, and we spent time at places that accommodate migrants at risk of deportation and circulated information posters about the project. Needless to say, trying to map the field and getting in touch with migrants was an extremely time consuming, tedious and gruelling business. In itself however, and this is where methodological self-reflexivity for the researcher turned out to be critical for our project, we did gain a lot of insights about the institutional and political forces that shape this field. We also understood that, when doing research in a field like this, the way researchers are perceived by others may have little to do what they actually say or do, and that researchers may have few or no real means to control this process.
Themed Week on Research Methodologies:
- Monday: Thinking and Talking about Research Methodologies: Why Should we Bother? (M. Bosworth)
- Tuesday: Suspicious Minds and Unwelcome Researchers: Obstacles Encountered When Researching Forced Return in Sweden (D. DeBono, S. Rönnqvist, and K. Magnusson)
- Wednesday: Helping Ourselves to Deal with the Pain of Others: Secondary Traumatization Syndrome and Vicarious Traumatization (S. Weiss-Dagan)
- Thursday: Is it Ethical to Carry Keys for Research in Immigration Detention Centres? (S. Turnbull)
- Friday: Oh the Pains, Frustrations, and Dilemmas of Field Research! If Only We Could Share Them… (I. Hasselberg)
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
DeBono, D., Magnusson. K, and Rönnqvist, S. (2015) Suspicious Minds and Unwelcome Researchers: Obstacles Encountered When Researching Forced Return in Sweden. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/obstacles-researching-forced-return/ (Accessed [date]).